Is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu xenophobic?

2015 general election, Commentary

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wants to rid Turkey of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled north to escape the civil war

The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party has earned plaudits and condemnation alike arguing that the Syrians hosted by Turkey should be sent home.

The refugees are making it hard for ordinary Turkish citizens to find work because they undercut wages, he says, and a Republican People’s Party (CHP) government would send them home, where they will be more comfortable. Rather audaciously, he claims a CHP government would do what no-one else has managed so far and secure peace between the warring sides in Syria, thus ensuring the refugees aren’t sent back to a warzone.

Given the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps and cities across Turkey, it’s perhaps unsurprising a Turkish political leader is using Syrian refugees as part of his campaign strategy. More surprising is for that political leader to be Mr Kılıçdaroğlu, a man many regard as one of the most tolerant than his counterparts.

But the CHP leader has been testing the water on this stance as early as February, when he that his government would bring peace to the Middle East and send home the 1.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

People are hungry

He tolda meeting of his party’s parliamentary group meeting about how the 250,000 refugees living in Şanlıurfa province under Turkish salaries: “People in Şanlıurfa are hungry and paying the price. No-one in Şanlıurfa wants to be involved in Syria’s internal affairs.

“I promise the people of Şanlıurfa that we will bring peace to the Middle East as the Republic of Turkey with me as prime minister. I will never, ever support war or conflict. I will not support arming people. I will bring peace to all sides in both Syria and Iraq.

“And I will tell my Syrian siblings, those 1.7 million siblings, ‘Go, my siblings’, return to your fatherland. We will offer you all kind of assistance. We have spent 5.5 billion dollars on you so far, we do not regret it, but peace has come to Syria with a CHP government, so go and work in your own country.”

Not an isolated incident

It’s a tone that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu has repeated at more recent campaign stops.

“We will send our Syrian siblings back home”, he told a meeting of businessmen in the southern town of Mersin yesterday to rapturous applause. “Every person is happier living on the lands where they were born, in their own country.”

So why does Mr Kılıçdaroğlu appear to be playing the race card with Syrian refugees? It partly comes down to interpretation.

The Grey Wolf?

The Grey Wolf?

Make no mistake, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s words are very carefully chosen. But is he necessarily xenophobic?

He doesn’t want to kick out Syrian refugees on the first day of a CHP government, but he isn’t uncomfortable with people thinking otherwise. That’s clear from the scant objections to the countless news stories online offering some variation on the “Kılıçdaroğlu: We will send the Syrians home” headline.

What’s more, the applause he got in the Mersin auditorium shows it’s a popular policy in the parts of Turkey that have played host to Syrians since the civil war broke out.

It all feels like a calculated nationalist tinge to the party’s campaign strategy. That said, the CHP leader does have a track record in small-scale nationalist campaigning. He made headlines ahead of last year’s local elections when a camera caught him making the “Grey wolves” gesture, which is popularly associated with supporters of the nationalist MHP.

Last modified: Tuesday 13 September 2016

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