ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger in Turkey’s presidential race switched to a more nationalistic and tough stance on Thursday. He promised to return millions of refugees if elected and rejected any possibility of negotiating peace with Kurdish militants.
Voters in Turkey will go back to the polls for a runoff on May 28, after neither Erdogan nor his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, won more than 50% of the vote in Sunday’s first round.
The elections will decide whether the country remains under the increasingly authoritarian president for a third decade, or can embark on a more democratic course promised by the opposition.
Erdogan faced electoral headwinds over the cost-of-living crisis and criticism of 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 soft-spoken joint candidate of a six-party opposition alliance, had led a very positive and unifying campaign, based mainly on pledges to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding. He had also campaigned with a promise to restore an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation.
Many of the rallies of his pro-secular main opposition party, the 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 hardened his rhetoric in an apparent attempt to appeal to Nationalist voters, including those who voted for a third candidate, Nationalist politician Sinan Ogan.
Ogan, who received 5.2% of the vote and is backed by an anti-migrant party, has said he would consider returning migrants by force if necessary.
“Erdoğan! You have not protected the borders or the honor of the country. You have brought in more than 10 million refugees,” Kilicdaroglu said in a speech at his party’s 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 of time.”
Amid growing anti-migrant sentiment in the country, Kilicdaroglu had previously said he intended to repatriate refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return. Turkey has been 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 had portrayed Kilicdaroglu as colluding with “terrorists” after gaining the support of the country’s pro-Kurdish party. With Erdogan controlling the country’s mainstream media, analysts say the story resonates with nationalist voters who shied away from supporting Kilicdaroglu, fearing he wouldn’t be tough enough on terrorism.
“Unfortunately, an election process that should have been a democracy celebration… was overshadowed by Erdogan’s campaigns of lies and slander,” said Kilicdaroglu.
‘Weren’t you the one who sat down with terrorist organizations and made secret agreements with terrorist organizations behind closed doors? I declare to all my citizens that I have never and never will sit down with terrorist organizations. Period,” he said.
He was referring to peace efforts between Erdogan’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which disintegrated in 2015. The PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey since 1984, is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the United States. European Union.
Preliminary results showed Erdogan won 49.5% of the vote on Sunday, while Kilicdaroglu took 44.9%. Ogan has not yet supported Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu for the second round, although it was not clear what proportion of his supporters would vote for his preferred candidate in the second round.