- By Paul Kirby
- BBC News, Ankara
Turkey’s last presidential race has become increasingly tense as Recep Tayyip Erdogan bids to extend his 20-year term by five more.
Ahead of Sunday’s run-off election, opposition rival Kemal Kilidaroglu has appealed to nationalists by saying he would deport millions of Syrian refugees.
The president accused them of hate speech – and said Kilıdaroğlu’s victory would be a victory for terrorists.
The opposition candidate trailed the first round with 2.5 million votes.
But even if the president is the favorite, the difference between them can still be reversed – either the 2.8 million supporters of the ultranationalist candidate who came third or the eight million voters who did not turn out in the first round.
For four hours this week, Mr. Kilidaroglu took questions from viewers on his YouTube channel, Babala TV. The broadcast reached 23 million views at last count, and Turkey has a population of 85 million.
Youth campaigner Mehtepe thinks a YouTube marathon can be done: “Being on BaBaLa TV touched many young voters who didn’t vote for the first time.”
She is a member of the center-right nationalist Good Party, which supports the opposition and has the only female leader in Turkish politics, Meral Aksener.
The appearance was a good move for a candidate who is trying to overcome the insider advantage of a rival who controls 90% of Turkish media.
President Erdoğan has not only amassed total power for the past 6 years – he has cracked down on the opposition and jailed political opponents.
The town of Bala, an hour’s drive southeast of Ankara, is not a place where Mr Kilidaroglu can turn for support. More than 60% of voters backed President Erdogan there two weeks ago, and there is no sign of Turkey’s five million voters taking to the streets for the first time.
Al Ozdemir, owner of a doner kebab shop down the road from the presidential party’s headquarters, said he would vote for Mr Erdogan for another five years.
But another shopkeeper refused to tell the BBC who they supported for fear of losing Erdogan supporters as customers.
Turkey’s struggling economy has been the number one issue for months, but as Sunday’s final draws closer, talk is heating up and refugees are at the center.
The 74-year-old opposition leader, who held his hands in a trademark heart shape, is missing. Instead, he is trying to attract voters who support ultranationalist leader Sinan Ogan two weeks ago.
While the president won Mr Ogan’s support, his opposition leader, the anti-immigrant Victory Party led by Umit Özdag, received 1.2 million votes.
This week, the leader of the Victory Party, Mr. Kilidaroglu, agreed to return “13 million refugees” within a year “in accordance with international law”.
Turkey is hosting more immigrants than any other country, but nowhere in such large numbers.
Professor Murat Erdoğan, who conducts a regular field study called the Syrian Barometer, believes that the number of Syrian refugees and irregular migrants from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is closer to six or seven million.
“Their talk is not realistic, it is physically impossible,” Professor Erdogan said. “If we talk [repatriating] Voluntarily it is impossible, and by force it means that he must return more than 50,000 per day.
The conversation may not be pleasant, but it can make a difference. 85% of Turks want refugees from the Syrian civil war to return home, pollsters suggest.
According to Nezi Onur Kuru, a political scientist from Koc University, both parties have nationalist political parties and Mr. Kilidaroglu is addressing the security concerns felt by many voters, especially the youth.
“He knows that the perceived threat level is very high because of the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks and wars involving Russia, Syria and Azerbaijan.”
President Erdoğan has announced that he will welcome Syrian refugees and return them to the country. Their main ally is the far-right nationalist MHP.
And he carried out the attack using a video edited to link the rival to the Kurdish militant group PKK.
Kilidaroglu’s victory on Friday means “terrorist organizations” will win, he said.
The target is the largest pro-Kurdish HDP party, which supports Mr. Kilidaroglu and has repeatedly sought to identify President Erdogan with PKK militants. HDP disclaims such links.
The HDP, for now, supports Mr Kilidaroglu because he wants to change Turkey’s “one-man rule”. But he has real concerns about his alliance with far-right nationalists.
It was initially thought that President Erdogan might lose because of his mishandling of the Turkish economy and his poor response to the February earthquake.
And yet nearly half of voters supported it. The question is whether Mr. Kilidaroglu’s change of tack will benefit him.
“I wanted a change, all my customers want a change,” says Songgul at Bala Chicken Restaurant.
But in the end, they all stuck with the president because they didn’t believe in the opposite number, “I will vote for Erdogan because there is no alternative,” she said.