Syrian refugees at the core of elections in Turkey’s border town Hatay

Turkey’s southern province of Hatay has always been perhaps its most diverse, with a mix of people from different ethnicities and religions have lived together for centuries, but the eight-year civil war in nearby Syria is having repercussions on local dynamics and has emerged as the main factor that will determine the outcome of local elections on March 31.

Hatay was once a symbol of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s promised moderate Islamist state in peace with the West. In 2005, Erdoğan organised the first meeting of his “Alliance of Civilisation” project in Hatay, an initiative praised by the then U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan

At the end of the last decade, the province looked poised to become a centre for tourism and culture, with boutique hotels and restaurants opening one after another. But that all changed when unrest in Syria began in 2011, particularly after two car bombs exploded in the province’s Reyhanlı district in May 2013, killing 53 people. 

The province today hosts large number of refugees from Syria. Though many residents of Hatay have relatives in Syria, the influx has tipped the balance between Sunni and Alevi Muslim communities, particularly due to limited efforts to ease tensions. Hotels opened to welcome tourists, now host mostly foreign expats working on humanitarian aid.

Officers work on May 12, 2013 on a street damaged by a car bomb explosion which went off on May 11 in Reyhanli in Hatay, just a few kilometres from the main border crossing into Syria. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)
Officers work on May 12, 2013 on a street damaged by a car bomb explosion which went off on May 11 in Reyhanli in Hatay, just a few kilometres from the main border crossing into Syria. (AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC)

“Syrians pay less tax and work for lower wages than us. Syrians are one of the reasons for the downturn in Hatay’s economy. They are guests no more. I do not approve of them being allowed to vote. They give birth continuously and cannot look after their children. They ruined this place,” said one woman, who declined to be named.

Unemployment and infrastructure were the other big problems, said the woman, who said she had a shop, but on many days did not have even a single customer. “There is a serious problem of access to water in our city, although we have rich water resources. We have been waiting for years for them to clean the Asi River,” she said. 

The woman said she thought Lütfü Savaş, the mayoral candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) would solve these problems. Savaş has served two terms as mayor, first elected for the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP), then switching to the CHP in the 2014 elections. This time he is running against the AKP’s candidate İbrahim Güler, a businessman from Reyhanlı. 

When Savaş won the 2014 local elections against the AKP candidate, there was only a 0.7 percentage point difference between the two parties. Savaş, who is more likely to win the election, runs a campaign that focuses on Syrians. While voters are more familiar with Savaş, his rival’s votes will mostly depend on AKP voters’ loyalty to the ruling party. 

“Lütfü Savaş’s attitude toward refugees reflects the people’s wishes and rhetoric. Savaş follows the pulse of the people and voices what they say,” said Nazmi Altınöz, a CHP member of the municipal assembly for 15 years.

Syrian children walk on the street after their school on January 18, 2014 in Reyhanli near the town of Hatay, southern Turkey. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)
Syrian children walk on the street after their school on January 18, 2014 in Reyhanli near the town of Hatay, southern Turkey. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

The war has hit the economy of Hatay, which depended on border trade with Syria and other Arab countries further afield. The province used to have the second largest lorry fleet in Turkey, was a leading exporter of fruit and vegetables, and had a total share of almost 40 percent of men’s shoe exports. As a result, the frustration of residents is directed at the some 430,000 Syrian refugees in the province, almost 12,000 of whom will be able to vote on March 31. 

For Erdem Günay, a young unemployed university graduate, the main problems in the province are lack of jobs and poor roads. Günay said the Syrians were also a problem, but did not approve Savaş’s attitude. “We do not know the conditions those people are living in,” he said. 

İbrahim Sever, a resident of Hatay.
İbrahim Sever, a resident of Hatay.

Ibrahim Sever, who runs a textile shop, also complained about problems with water and roads, but also said he would vote for the incumbent mayor. “Syrians cannot meddle with the fate of Hatay. They are only guests, they will leave one day,” he said. 

According to Tamer Yazar, a columnist of a reputable local newspaper, Syrian refugees are suffering the consequences of the Turkish government’s policy of presenting the local polls as a battle for the survival of the state. “What they used to call ‘our Syrian brothers’, has now become enemies,” Yazar said.

The journalist also criticised Savaş. “Maybe he is not aware but he is discriminating against people. He is opening new battlefronts on our differences. And one should not forget the NGOs, which remain silent.”

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) has been continuously increasing its votes in Hatay. The party did not nominate a candidate for the provincial election, but will compete in some districts. 

Kerem Nalbant, one of HDP provincial co-chairs, blamed politicians for the frustration and prejudices against Syrians. According to Nalbant, anger should be directed at the government’s Syria policies, not its victims.