The most consequential elections in Turkey’s recent history are less than a month away, set to be held on May 14. It will also be the first election Rana al-Masry ever votes in. “I will vote for AKP,” she said blankly in Istanbul, referring to the Justice and Development Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has run the country for more than 20 years. She does not necessarily believe in them, she explains. “It's only because my family will have better chances of not being deported or whatever may happen to them if the opposition takes charge.”
The 36-year-old Masry is one of more than 200,000 Syrians who have been granted Turkish citizenship since their arrival in the wake of the Syrian war. Given their numbers, this group will not play a significant role in determining the outcome of the elections, but with migration a top campaign issue, they are at the heart of the vote.
Interest stems from all sides. Deputy Chair Onursal Adıgüzel of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) highlighted the “concerns of our citizens about election security” when announcing that some 150,000 voters born in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and Iran would be voting “for the first time,” pointing to the “uncontrolled entry into our country [that] was experienced as a result of the open door policy implemented by the AKP on our borders.” Amid the tensions over the upcoming vote, rumors have flourished about possible election fraud linked to Syrian refugees voting as well.
Even the Syrian government has taken an interest, obliging Syrians with Turkish passports to be interviewed by Syrian intelligence. This has only added to the panic that dual nationals are a potential fifth column.
The right to vote
Turkey has experienced profound changes over the last decade in absorbing the fallout from the Syrian conflict. It now hosts 4 million refugees, mostly from Syria, and has become the world’s largest refugee hosting country. Syrians have not been granted full refugee status due a geographical limitation that Turkey included in its accession to the United Nations Refugee Convention. However, it is the only one of Syria’s neighbors to offer citizenship to displaced Syrians en masse. Syrians have primarily obtained Turkish citizenship through the exceptional condition in Turkey’s 2009 naturalization law, although they have also received it through investment or marriage.
Opposition parties believe President Erdoğan was playing politics, arguing that he aimed to grow his electoral base by granting citizenship to Syrians. Whether fact or fiction, the Nation Alliance, the six-party opposition bloc working to unseat Erdoğan, made this a reality by campaigning on an aggressively anti-migrant platform.
But it is another opposition group, the Victory Party, which is not affiliated with the Nation Alliance, that has taken the hardest-line stance, shifting the entire national debate around the issue by vowing to expel all refugees. The party was established in 2021 with an anti-refugee platform, becoming the first single-issue party in Turkey, showing just how potent the issue of immigration has become ahead of the 2023 elections.
In mid-March, the CHP and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border, where he vowed to send Syrian refugees back within two years of the election. He also said he would send Afghans to Iran. This is in line with his earlier plan, which included normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then using unpromised funds from the European Union to pay Turkish contractors to build houses, schools, and roads in Syria to resettle Syrians. For most Syrians in Turkey, this would be a nightmare, pushing those who can vote to try to block such a plan.
Based on this, Masry and others see Erdoğan as the lesser of two evils. Most Syrians seem to view the AKP as their original allies and the best guarantor of the community’s future in Turkey.
Samir Abdullah, a Syrian researcher who will vote for the ruling government, said, “The problem is with the rest of the parties, the opposition parties […] They are threatening to deport Syrians, threatening to resume relations directly with the regime, withdrawing the Turkish military from the north. That is the problem, that is why I am picking the best of the worst.”
Not only a pawn in their game
Group think is at work, but the Syrian diaspora in the country is no monolith. Others ridicule Syrians who blindly back Erdoğan and Turkish policy, dubbing them Sorkys, which blends “Syrian” and “Turk” together. Sorkys support Erdoğan because they see him as reclaiming an Islamist, imperialist ideology that advances the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, present-day Syria included. Lyrics from the recent satirical song “I am a Sorky” in Arabic go: “I love you Turkey, I love Aya Sofia, anyone who doesn’t love Turkey, I don’t love them.”
Not all eligible Syrians will necessarily vote for Erdoğan, however. Facing domestic pressure, Erdoğan flipped his long-held position at the end of last year and is now in political dialogue with the Syrian government to pave the way for Syrians to return. This has left Syrians in Turkey stunned. There is now uncertainty about the safety of the Syrian community, regardless of the outcome of the elections.
Voting is not only political but also personal as well for Syrian voters. Ghaith, who asked that his last name and other personal details not be used, believes Erdoğan will try to outmaneuver his campaign rivals at any cost, including by punishing Syrians. For Ghaith, Erdoğan’s U-turn reflects his ambitions and desperation to stay in power. Although the opposition’s plan to force all Syrians to return is alarming, he believes the rhetoric is pandering to populist sentiment rather than a reflection of an actual plan that will be implemented should the opposition win. “I am thinking to give a chance to someone else to see what they will do. Erdoğan was in control for 20 years and we need to see someone else,” he said.
There are also dual nationals who care less about politics than the economic crisis Turkey is now facing. For instance, some Syrian Turkish businessmen bought so-called “golden passports” through investment to expand their commercial interests outside of Syria. However, the currency crisis, hyperinflation, and financial volatility the country has experienced over the past year have made their pockets lighter. And on top of personal business interests, they continue to have a good relationship with the Syrian government, and blame the AKP government for extending the Syrian conflict through the use of Turkish troops and Syrian proxies in northern Syria.
Jin Dawood, another first-time voter in the southeastern Turkish city of Urfa, is still undecided. “I cannot be sure who is the one that could be trusted,” she said. She is not only Syrian but also ethnically a Kurd. She is supportive of the opposition bloc’s efforts to court the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose former leader Selahattin Demirtaş is serving a prison sentence for insulting Erdoğan.
And as in all elections, there are also skeptics who will opt out of voting altogether. One eligible Syrian interviewed said she would not vote. “It’s not my country and I have no right to interfere in their affairs,” she said. The revolution in Syria in many ways was a call to let Syrians engage in democratic processes. It’s a sad irony that this wish has been tainted following conflict, displacement, and now political polarization in their new home.
Others, traumatized by the repressive political system of their native country, fear the consequences of participation. “They fear the Turkish elections are monitored like in Syria. Therefore, if anyone supports AKP, the opposition will know about it and hold it accountable,” or vice versa, said Ahmed Jamil Baccora, a member of the Syrian National Coalition in Ankara. If they pick the losing party, they fear they might be stripped of their citizenship, he added.
Although farfetched, Syrians note that something similar happened in Sudan after the transitional government came to power and stripped thousands of foreigners, including Syrians, of their naturalized Sudanese citizenship. Further, Turkey is not a country that necessarily respects data privacy either. There are dozens of cases of the personal information of foreigners with Turkish passports being shared online alongside speculation about which party they will vote for. “Until now, many Syrians want to distance themselves from the elections to protect themselves from any reprisals that deprive them of Turkish citizenship,” said Ahmed.
Whether these Syrians like it or not, they are on the moving train that Turkey finds itself in. The highly fraught May 14 elections inch closer day by day. Most polls show the two leading presidential candidates divided by a thin margin. Many recognize that the elections will be only the beginning of changes for the Syrian diaspora that currently calls Turkey home.
Joshua Levkowitz is a fellow for the Institute of Current World Affairs where he researches migration. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Al-Monitor, among others.
Photo by Valeria Ferraro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
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