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Zafer Partisi, Refugees, and the Upcoming Elections in Turkey

“You are setting the political agenda” shouts a woman who has participated in the rally of Ümit Özdağ, the leader of the far-right Zafer Partisi (the Victory Party in English, ZP in Turkish) in Turkey. This is no understatement about the influence Özdağ has over the political debates related to Syrian refugees in Turkey, which he currently leads and shapes the anti-Syrian rhetoric in the upcoming elections. While the anti-Syrian statements are not new in the Turkish political arena and not specific to Zafer Partisi, witnessing the instrumentalization of refugees in an election has no precedent. Along with the decreasing public support for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan[1] and the economic instability, Syrians occupy an important place in the electoral debates in Turkey and Zafer Partisi has become the trendsetter in anti-refugee rhetoric and represents the first far-right political party example in Turkey that was mostly seen in Europe as it offers the most assertive refugee policy among the political parties: to send Syrians back to Syria.

Zafer Partisi is established in August 2021 by Ümit Özdağ. However, Özdağ is not a new actor in Turkish politics. Özdağ served as an MP of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi, MHP in Turkish) until 2016, served as its deputy leader, and even announced his candidacy for the party leadership which ended up in his dismissal from MHP. Later, he joined the right-wing Good Party (Iyi Parti, IYIP in Turkish), served as a deputy leader, and has been dismissed by the IYIP board for “ignoring some basic principles, including human rights, democracy, and state of law.”[2] Thus, when Özdağ established Zafer Partisi, he was already a well-known politician that had an audience.

Thus, with this audience, the Twitter page of Zafer Partisi opens with the picture of Özdağ along with the party flag and the motto “During the ruling of Zafer Partisi, all the refugees will leave.” In its party manifesto,[3] there is dire criticism towards the “Palace Regime (Saray Rejimi)” targeting Erdoğan and “Yellow Opposition (Sarı Muhalefet)”[4] pointing to opposition parties. More importantly, the manifesto reiterates the “damage” that has been done to Turkey by Syrians, “how the real racism is actually occurring towards Turks,” and “Zafer Partisi is Turkish nation’s last line of defense.” Hence, Zafer Partisi describes the immigration waves to Turkey as a “challenge to the unity of Turkey” that has been done “strategically” to shift demographics.

While the far-right and its rise in Europe has been debated largely, for a very long time in Turkey, refugee issues did not dominate the electoral debates until 2019. This lack of attention to Syrians in electoral debates is telling as Turkey had seven elections and became the country hosting the highest number of refugees in the world between 2011 and 2019.[5] For instance, studies find no significant impact of Syrian refugee inflow on the election outcomes between 2012 and 2016.[6] [7] Although beginning in 2016, public support for refugees started to wear thin as the economic crisis hit the country and the EU-Turkey deal made it clear in the eyes of the public that the refugees were there to stay, the discussions about refugees were mostly concerned with the number of registered and unregistered Syrians in Turkey,[8] the number of Syrians that have been granted citizenship,[9] and the increasing number of crimes committed by but particularly against Syrians.[10] Each of these topics brought attention to the issue of Syrians, occupied the political agenda, and eventually faded.

However, following the local elections in the summer of 2019, and the unexpected loss of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP, in Turkish) in major cities including Istanbul, Syrians entered the agenda of the politicians permanently. While no study that directly links the loss of AKP to their refugee policy, based on the change in the party’s pro-refugee rhetoric and policies in the aftermath of their electoral defeat in March, it is possible to say that the blame for defeat was pinned on the refugees.[11] In the following months after this defeat, the AKP consolidated the “return” discourse. A stark example of this consolidation occurred in February 2020 following the killing of Turkish troops in Idlib, when an AKP spokesperson announced that they would not stop refugees from crossing to Europe. The announcement mobilized thousands of refugees to Turkey’s border with Greece.[12] Treating the issue as “up-for-grabs,” all political parties started making statements about what should be done regarding the Syrian refugees and fueled the instrumentalization of refugees in domestic politics. Later in 2020, these discussions intensified with the increasing visibility of mainly Afghan and Iraqi refugees' arrivals and turned into a giant anti-refugee wave.

This brings us to Zafer Partisi being the first example of a European-style far-right political party in Turkey whose main agenda is to target and repel immigrants. There were far-right political parties in Turkey, like MHP whose focus was more on Turkish nationalism against other ethnic minorities in Turkey mainly Kurds. Yet, Zafer Partisi differs from the previous far-right parties by its immense focus on anti-refugee rhetoric, by its use of every opportunity to repeat and feed this rhetoric, and by its vast influence in shaping the political attitude towards refugees in domestic politics combined with the nationalism of “Turkish borders,” as its equivalents in Europe. The party details its anti-refugee policy in three steps: first, by stating that Syrians will be sent back, as a way to cope with the current situation; second, going further and presenting long-term planning, by explaining the prevention of the arrival of future incoming migration waves, not only from the Middle East but also from South-East Asia and Africa; and third, stating that Zafer Partisi will encourage the return of the Turkish diaspora to Turkey by linking these to social and economic reforms.

Each of these steps shows what Zafer Partisi and its far-right rhetoric do best: targeting the main security concerns of citizens at multiple levels. These security concerns were exacerbated with the arrival of Afghans and Iraqis, which even led to the disquietous statements of “Border is honor” not just by Zafer Partisi but also by other political parties. The security debate does not stop at the protection of the borders. Lately, there were hot discussions on multiple social media platforms about how the citizens of Turkey cannot feel secure anymore in their daily life because they are surrounded by refugees. Thus, the expansion of security concerns from borders to citizens’ daily lives also expanded the influence of the rhetoric of Zafer Partisi faster and firmer. With elections coming up it looks like almost all parties are jumping on the bandwagon of Zafer Partisi, fearing an electoral backlash against even slightly pro-refugee statements and policy plans.

Therefore, to what extent the policy promises of Zafer Partisi will hold would become evident in the election results. Yet, considering the anti-refugee attitude, not only among politicians but also among the citizens, following the economy, according to the latest polls,[13] “refugees are the second most important issue facing Turkey.” This indicates that neither Özdağ nor Zafer Partisi will be going away from the political arena anytime soon. This raises two highly crucial questions. First, considering the rising support Zafer Partisi is getting from the electorate alongside this policy convergence by the parties, will Zafer Partisi gain sufficient votes to pass the threshold and find a place in the upcoming elections? Second, and most importantly, if Zafer Partisi enters the parliament, what will be the trajectory for Syrian and other refugees in Turkey?

 

 

We would like to thank Aras Lindh for his very constructive comments on the draft version of this article.

[1] Duvar English. 2022. “Polls show opposition to Erdoğan, discontent with the government.” September 8.

[2] Avundukluoglu, E. 2020. “Opposition IYI Party dismisses its lawmaker.” Anadolu Agency, November 16.

[3] Establishment Manifesto (Kuruluş Manifestosu) of Zafer Partisi.

[4] Here, Zafer Partisi does a word game with the term “Yellow Union (Sarı Sendika)” that collaborates with the employer and prioritizes the interests of the employer rather than the employees.

[5] Since March 2011, when the first group of Syrians arrived in Turkey, two presidential elections, four general elections (one of which was held simultaneously with one of the presidential elections), and two local elections were held.

[6] Altındağ, O. and N. Kaushal. 2021. “Do refugees impact voting behavior in the host country? Evidence from Syrian refugee inflows to Turkey.” Public Choice 186 (1): 149-178.

[7] Fisunoğlu, A. and D. Ş. Sert. 2019. “Refugees and elections: the effects of Syrians on voting behavior in Turkey.” International Migration 57 (2): 298-312.

[8] Holleis, J. and K. Knipp. 2022. “Syrian refugees in Turkey turn into a political pawn.” Deutsche Welle, May 24.

[9] Hurriyet Daily News. 2022. “Over 193,000 Syrians became Turkish citizens: Minister.” February 19.

[10] International Crisis Group. 2018. “Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions.” Europe Report No 248. Brussels: Belgium.

[11] Biskin, H. and S. Babat. 2019. “According to the voters of AKP, why was Istanbul lost? (AK Partili seçmene göre İstanbul neden kaybedildi?)” Duvar, June 26.

[12] Coskun, O. and E. Erkoyun. 2020. “Turkey says will not stop Syrian refugees reaching Europe after troops killed.” Reuters, February 28.

[13] Aydin, M. M. Çelikpala, E. Yeldan, M. Güvenç, O. Z. Zaim, B. B. Hawks, E. C. Sokullu, K. Yıldırım, B. Ayhan, M. K. Çoban, and S. Kaya. 2022. Quantitative Research Report: Research on Political and Social Tendencies in Turkey 2021 (Kantitatif Araştırma Raporu: Türkiye Siyasal Sosyal Eğilimler Araştırması 2021). İstanbul: Kadir Has Üniversitesi Türkiye Çalışmaları Grubu, Akademetre ve Global Akademi.

 

CONTRIBUTOR
Ezgi Irgil
Ezgi Irgil

Ezgi Irgil is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Utrikespolitiska Institutet). Her research lies at the intersection of global migration governance and public policy, focusing on the political consequences of forced migration.

Zeynep Balcıoğlu
Zeynep Balcıoğlu

Zeynep Balcioglu is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Leiden University. Her research focuses on multi-level governance structures, social services, and assistance provisions for refugees and immigrants, local bureaucracies, and international humanitarian organizations.

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