- By Paul Kirby
- BBC News, Ankara
The final hours of Turkey’s presidential race have turned increasingly sour as Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers to extend his 20 years in power by five years.
Ahead of Sunday’s second round, opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu courted nationalist votes by promising to deport millions of Syrian refugees.
The president accused him of hate speech – and said a victory for Kilicdaroglu would be a victory for the terrorists.
The opposition candidate was behind by 2.5 million votes in the first round.
But even if the president is a favourite, the gap between them could still be closed – either by the 2.8 million supporters of an ultranationalist candidate who came third, or by the eight million voters who did not show up for the first round.
For four hours this week, Mr Kilicdaroglu answered questions from the public on a YouTube channel called BaBaLa TV. The show has reached 23 million views according to the last count and Turkey has 85 million inhabitants.
Young activist Mehtep thinks the YouTube marathon could work: “Being on BaBaLa TV has affected many young voters who didn’t vote the first time.”
She is a member of the centre-right nationalist Good Party, which backed the opposition challenger and has the only female leader of Turkish politics in Meral Aksener.
The appearance was a smart move for a candidate trying to overcome his rival’s inherent advantage of controlling around 90% of Turkish media.
President Erdogan has not only gained massive powers over the past six years – he has cracked down on dissent and political opponents have been thrown into jail.
The town of Bala, an hour’s drive southeast of Ankara, is not the kind of place Mr Kilicdaroglu will turn to for help. More than 60% of voters supported President Erdogan two weeks ago, and there are few signs that Turkey’s five million new voters have taken to the streets.
Across the road from the presidential party headquarters, doner kebab shop owner Al Ozdemir said he would vote for Mr Erdogan for another five years.
But another trader refused to tell the BBC who he supported because he feared losing Erdogan supporters as customers.
For months, Turkey’s struggling economy has been the number one issue, but as Sunday’s second round draws closer, the rhetoric has intensified and refugees are at the center of it.
Gone is the 74-year-old Unifying Leader of the Opposition with his hands cupped in the shape of a heart. Instead, he is trying to appeal to voters who backed ultranationalist leader Sinan Ogan two Sundays ago.
Although the president won the support of Mr Ogan, the opposition leader won the support of the anti-immigrant Victory Party, led by Umit Ozdag, whose party won 1.2 million votes.
The Victory Party leader said this week that Mr Kilicdaroglu had agreed to return “13 million migrants” within a year “in accordance with international law”.
Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, but not nearly as many.
Professor Murat Erdogan, who conducts a regular field study called Syrian Barometer, estimates that the total number of Syrian refugees and irregular migrants from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is closer to six or seven million.
“Their speech is not realistic, physically it is impossible”, explains professor Erdogan. “If we’re talking about (repatriating) voluntarily, that’s not feasible, and by force, that means more than 50,000 people would have to be sent back a day.”
The rhetoric is unpleasant but it could make the difference. According to polls, as many as 85% of Turks want refugees from the Syrian civil war to return home.
Both sides have nationalist parties to support, says political scientist Nezih Onur Kuru of Koc University, and Mr Kilicdaroglu is exploiting the security concerns felt by many voters, especially young people.
“He knows the perceived threat level is too high due to the immigrant crisis and the terrorist attacks and wars involving Russia, Syria and Azerbaijan.”
President Erdogan says he is already sending Syrian refugees back and plans to send more. His main partner is the far-right nationalist MHP.
And he also went on the attack, using manipulated video at a rally to link his rival to the Kurdish militant PKK, considered a terrorist group in the West as well as in Turkey.
On Friday, he said a victory for Kilicdaroglu would mean the “terrorist organizations” would win.
Its target is the large pro-Kurdish HDP party, which supports Mr. Kilicdaroglu and which President Erdogan has repeatedly sought to identify with PKK militants. The HDP denies such links.
The HDP, for now, backs Mr Kilicdaroglu because it wants to end the change to Turkey’s “one man rule”. But he has real concerns about his alliance with a far-right nationalist.
Initially, it was thought that President Erdogan could be defeated due to his disastrous management of the Turkish economy and his poor response to the February earthquakes.
And yet, almost half of the voters supported him. The question is whether Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s change of course will work.
“I wanted change, all my customers wanted change,” says Songul at his chicken restaurant in Bala.
But in the end, she says they all stay with the president because they don’t trust his counterpart: “I will vote for Erdogan because there is no alternative.”