ANKARA, Türkiye — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger in Turkey’s presidential race shifted gears and adopted a more nationalist and tough stance on Thursday, promising to send millions of refugees back if elected and rejecting any possibility of negotiating peace with the Kurdish activists.
Turkish voters will return to the polls on May 28 for a runoff after neither Erdogan nor his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu won more than 50% of the vote in Sunday’s first round.
The election will decide whether the country remains under the increasingly authoritarian president for a third decade, or can embark on a more democratic path that the opposition has promised to follow.
Erdogan had faced electoral headwinds due to the cost of living crisis and criticism over the government’s response to a devastating earthquake in February. But with his alliance retaining its grip on parliament, Erdogan is now in a good position to win in the second round.
Kilicdaroglu, the mild-mannered joint candidate of a six-party opposition alliance, had led a very positive and unifying campaign, mostly on promises to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding. . He had also campaigned on a promise to fix an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation.
Many rallies of his main pro-secular opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, had ended with Kilicdaroglu making a heart shape with his hands.
This week, however, the 74-year-old politician toughened up his rhetoric in an apparent effort to appeal to Nationalist voters, including those who voted for a third candidate, Nationalist politician Sinan Ogan.
Ogan, who won 5.2% of the vote and is backed by an anti-migrant party, said he would consider forcibly returning migrants if necessary.
“Erdogan! You did not protect the borders or the honor of the country. You have brought over 10 million refugees,” Kilicdaroglu said in a speech at his party headquarters. “You have turned your own citizens into refugees. I declare that as soon as I come to power, I will send all refugees home. Period.”
Amid growing anti-migrant sentiment in the country, Kilicdaroglu previously said he intended to repatriate refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return. Turkey is ranked as the country hosting the largest number of refugees, including at least 3.7 million Syrians.
The CHP leader also hit back at Erdogan, who described Kilicdaroglu as colluding with “terrorists” after receiving support from the country’s pro-Kurdish party. With Erdogan controlling mainstream media in the country, analysts say the narrative appears to have resonated with nationalist voters who have been reluctant to back Kilicdaroglu, fearing he is not tough enough on terrorism.
“Unfortunately, an electoral process that should have been a festival of democracy…has been overshadowed by Erdogan’s campaigns of lies and slander,” Kilicdaroglu said.
“Aren’t you the one who sat at the table with terrorist organizations, making secret deals with terrorist organizations behind closed doors? I declare to all my fellow citizens that I have never encountered terrorist organizations and that I never will. Period,” he said.
He was referring to peace efforts between Erdogan’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which collapsed in 2015. The PKK, which has waged an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984 , is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Preliminary results showed Erdogan winning 49.5% of the vote on Sunday, while Kilicdaroglu won 44.9%. Ogan has yet to endorse Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu for the run-off, although it is unclear what proportion of his supporters would vote for his preferred candidate in the run-off.