Skip to main content

Turkey’s Kilicdaroglu scapegoats Syrian refugees in bid to defeat Erdogan

Opposition leader sides with hard-liners advocating expulsion in last-ditch effort to unseat Erdogan in election that should turn on economy.
Turkey election

An Al-Monitor/Premise poll released this week has Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a statistical tie with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a runoff scheduled for Sunday, May 28. Erdogan came out ahead in the first round on May 14, 49.52% to 44.88%, but missed the 50% required to win outright.  

Erdogan’s unlikely edge on economy 

The overriding issue for voters (57%) is the economy, which is not surprising given skyrocketing inflation, food prices and unemployment, all compounded by the earthquake in February, which killed 50,000. 

The bad news keeps coming. Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves fell into the red this week for the first time in over 20 years, with its banking system now dependent on deposits by Arab Gulf countries. Mustafa Sonmez has the background here on Turkey’s cash crisis, and Afshin Molavi, writing in Forbes, has a first-rate assessment of Turkey’s daunting post-election economic challenges. 

The disastrous state of the economy, and the earthquake recovery, should be Erdogan’s burden, yet our poll shows that voters trust him more than Kilicdaroglu on the economy, by 52-48%. If Kilicdaroglu loses, his inability to tag Erdogan with the economic crisis will be the reason. 

Kilicdaroglu’s ugly right turn on refugees 

The second-leading concern among voters, at 16%, is the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. 

While Kilicdaroglu polls behind Erdogan on the economy and national security, he is winning voters on refugees, by taking a hard-right, nativist position, which has unsettled many of his supporters in Turkey and abroad.  

While Erdogan gained the endorsement of nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan, who served as spoiler in the first election round by getting 5.17% of the vote, Kilicdaroglu has received the backing of Umit Ozdag of the far-right Victory Party. 

According to Ozdag, he and Kilicdaroglu have agreed to send the refugees home “within a year,” adding for good measure that this should all be done within international law, with assurances they will be safe upon their return. 

The message from Kilicdaroglu, sensing an opening in the tight presidential race, is sharp and clear.  

“Make up your mind before refugees take over the country,” he said at a rally this week. 

As Nazlan Ertan reports, the long-standing aggressive and ugly anti-immigrant positions of Ozdag and Victory have unsettled other members of Kilicdaroglu’s coalition, including the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which accounts for approximately 8% of Kilicdaroglu’s support. 

The  coalition is nonetheless holding together, as Ezgi Akin reports — united, it seems, only in its members’ desire to unseat Erdogan. 

Kilicdaroglu’s nativist turn on refugees may be a reason that our latest poll gives no bounce to Erdogan from Ogan’s endorsement. 

Erdogan has termed his opponent’s approach on refugees as “hate speech,” which has allowed him to assume a more statesmanlike posture, pointing out that he is building the “infrastructure for the voluntary return of Syrians” in a "humane, conscientious and Islamic" manner.  

Amberin Zaman asks in today’s Turkey Briefing whether “Ozdag’s measly 2% plus of the vote is worth such indignities?" Her answer: “Probably not.” 

As we wrote here earlier this month, the return of Syrian refugees is low priority for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who will expect a high price for doing anything, in terms of reconstruction assistance from Arab states and lifting international sanctions. Syria and the Arab League are working on the issue, but expect progress to be glacial.

Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu agree on reconciling with Assad. Erdogan has ramped up the diplomatic push for a deal in recent months, working with and through Russian President Vladimir Putin. No doubt such a deal would be a game-changer in the region, but it, too, will move glacially. Assad is in no rush, and he expects Turkey to make the first move by withdrawing its troops and proxies from Syria. If Syrian forces then try to retake Idlib, as would be likely, another wave of refugees would probably flood into Turkey. As we wrote last month, Assad and Putin aren't the preferred guarantors of any arrangement with such high stakes. Whoever wins the election, diplomacy with Syria will be slow-going, and an aggressive push to resettle Syrian refugees by Turkey would only serve to trigger more instability, hardship and conflict.   

Too close to call (again) 

Of those polled, 15% said they are undecided heading into Sunday, a surprisingly large percentage in such a potentially close race. 

And then there are the side switchers. Another 14% of voters said they will not vote for the same candidate in the second round, although, as with the undecided, it is not clear which candidate will benefit more.    

Erdogan maintains an edge through media control and censorship, which has increased leading up to the election, as Jack Dutton reports.  

Another note from the polls is that 5% of the electorate gave priority to democracy and 11% to justice, meaning a concern about the rule of law under Erdogan. These numbers are significant, but this election is, more than anything else, a referendum on the economy. It is baffling, two days out, that Erdogan could have an edge on this issue, given the depth of Turkey’s crisis. Whoever wins Sunday, the reforms and sacrifices required for an economic turnaround will be daunting.  

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Turkey Briefing Turkey Briefing

Turkey Briefing

Top Turkey stories in your inbox each week

Trend Reports

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (4th R) attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on February 22, 2019. (Photo by HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP via Getty Images)

From roads to routers: The future of China-Middle East connectivity

A general view shows the solar plant in Uyayna, north of Riyadh, on March 29, 2018. - On March 27, Saudi announced a deal with Japan's SoftBank to build the world's biggest solar plant. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP) (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

Regulations on Middle East renewable energy industry starting to take shape

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial