Turkey's upcoming general elections have many in the country worried. The results could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to vastly increase his powers and continue to shape his "new" Turkey, or alternatively usher a Kurdish political faction into parliament for the first time ever.
But members of the country's large Syrian population are watching intently too — concerned but powerless to alter the results. Most fled here to avoid the civil war that has devastated their home country, with 2 million finding a home in Turkey since the conflict began four years ago. Erdogan has led a self-described "open door policy" for Syrian refugees, providing them with more than $5 billion worth of aid.
But the president's stance has not been universally popular. The influx of refugees has led to tensions, especially in border regions, where in some cases Syrians now outnumber Turks. Locals have complained of the new arrivals driving up property prices and crime rates, undercutting wages, and refusing to integrate.
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There have been anti-Syrian demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. In Gaziantep, Turks armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian refugees in the streets and parks after a refugee killed a local landlord. In the resort town of Antalya, Syrian dwellings and vehicles were attacked after its governor said he would expel more than 1,500 refugees for damaging tourism.
Opposition parties have sought to capitalize on these tensions, arguing that Turkey cannot handle the sheer volume of refugees flowing in from Syria. Some have advocated for stricter border policies, and even that refugees should be repatriated — rhetoric that has continued in the run-up to Sunday's polls.
Syrians themselves are caught up in the inter-party squabbling. "Parties are trying to use us for their own benefit," Muhad, a 25-year-old IT graduate from Damascus now living in Istanbul, told VICE News. "They just take a photo of the good or bad things for their own cause."
Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, is home to thousands of Syrian refugees. Some work or are pursuing education, while others have been reduced to a life of urban homelessness, begging and sleeping on the streets.
In what are now heavily Syrian neighborhoods, many voice worries of the repercussions that a change in the political landscape could have for them. "If any party wins beside Erdogan, it will effect Syrian people negatively," Maariyah, 26, told VICE News, referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which Erdogan headed as prime minister for three consecutive terms. Like most others, she's careful to say that she doesn't wish to interrupt the democratic process in a country where she says she's treated as a guest.
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Her concerns are shared by her compatriots, stoked in recent weeks by posts shared on social media platforms suggesting that Arabs, particularly Syrians and Iraqis, would suffer if more secular parties increased their share of power in Turkey.
Erdogan has shown an increasingly authoritarian streak in recent years, tightening control of the police, judiciary, and media, and angrily responding to criticism, even prosecuting opponents in court.
Despite this, many Syrians who spoke with VICE News effusively praised the president and his actions. "We are with Erdogan, he brought us here," a 24-year-old pharmacy worker named Hamid said. "He cares a lot for everyone, not only Syrians. He's a fine, fair man, who praises God and knows better than anyone else."
Others are less sure — perhaps even uncomfortable — with the idea of an all-powerful ruler given the catastrophic events that have unfolded in Syria under President Bashar al-Assad. Sitting in a travel agent's office surrounded by a group of his Syrian countrymen, Hossam, 47, told VICE news that he hoped that the polls would be democratic, but he doubted that would be the case. "Erdogan wants the whole country in his hand," he said to nods from the others assembled there. "They say it is democracy, but it's not. But he's got a soft tongue, he knows what to say." If the president manages to consolidate his grip on power, Hossam added, "it would be a dictatorship."
For all that, most Syrians hope only to be allowed to live in peace in Turkey. Mohammed, a bearded 26-year-old who spent time in Syrian regime prisons for his role as an activist, told VICE News that he understood public hostility toward Syrians, but said he had no wish to play a role in Turkey's political process "It's wrong to be part of this," he said. "We can't choose sides [but] whoever takes authority at the end, we only care about our visas."
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