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Erdogan's rival hardens tone, courting Turkish nationalists

By AFP - May 18,2023 - Last updated at May 18,2023

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, walks under the image of the founder of modern day Turkey Mustafa Ataturk, as he waves during a press conference ahead of the May 28 runoff vote, in Ankara, on Thursday (AFP photo)

ANKARA — Turkey's opposition leader vowed on Thursday to send back millions of migrants in a strident message aimed at winning the backing of an ultra-nationalist who helped push last weekend's presidential vote to a runoff.

Secular opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu delivered his first public address since a landmark election on Sunday in which he came almost five points behind President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kilicdaroglu gave the opposition's best performance in Erdogan's two-decade rule.

But it fell short of expectations set by pre-election polling and left the opposition visibly depressed.

The 74-year-old has since revamped his campaign team and toughened his message to win over Turkey's right-wing voters in the May 28 runoff.

He also plans to meet Sinan Ogan — a far-right figure who picked up 5.2 per cent of the vote and is still weighing his endorsement.

Kilicdaroglu tried on Thursday to toughen his message considerably from the more inclusive tone he set in the first stage of the campaign.

"Erdogan, you did not protect the borders and honour of the country," the former civil servant said.

"You have deliberately brought more than 10 million refugees to this country... As soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home."

Ogan has said he will only back a candidate who cracks down on migrants and fights “terrorism”, a code word in Turkey for Kurdish militants.

Veteran Turkey watcher Howard Eissenstat of the Middle East Institute said Kilicdaroglu was wooing nationalists by attacking Syrians because Kurds made up an important part of his base.

“The Kurds are a big part of his coalition,” Eissenstat said. “But the Syrians are a relatively safe target because, for the large part, they cannot vote.”


‘Syrians are our brothers’ 


Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted party were lionised across swathes of the Muslim world for their more embracing stance towards those fleeing conflicts in countries such as Syria.

Turkey’s five-million-strong refugee and migrant population became the world’s largest in the past decade.

A separate 2016 deal between Ankara and the European Union helped stem the continent’s migrant crisis by allowing those trying to reach Western Europe to settle in Turkey.

Turkey won billions of euros in funding from Brussels for the programme.

But an economic crisis that gathered pace as the election neared sent anti-migrant sentiment soaring.

Erdogan’s government has tried to find a middle ground.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said on Thursday that Turkey had already sent more than half a million Syrians back.

“We are not going to make Turkey into a refugee warehouse, and we have not done so to date. But the Syrians are our brothers,” Soylu said.

“We cannot send them to their deaths. And we have not. Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t want to be remembered as a leader who sent Syrians to their deaths.”

Eissenstat said Erdogan looked comfortable heading into the runoff and did not need to radically change his tone.

“He felt like he was in danger before Sunday,” the analyst said. “I don’t feel like he feels that way anymore.”

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