GAZIANTEP, Turkey (Reuters) - Levent Hocazade makes no apology for taking part in violent protests against Syrian refugees in this Turkish border province, where an influx of hundreds of thousands fleeing war has heightened competition for jobs and sent rents rocketing.
Gaziantep has long been a bastion of support for Turkey’s AK Party, its small industry and agriculture flourishing over a decade of AKP rule. But four years of war in Syria have changed its demographics and stoked a sense of economic insecurity.
The Islamist-rooted AKP, founded by President Tayyip Erdogan, faces its closest national election on Sunday since it came to power in 2002.
Its Syria policy - supporting mainly Sunni Muslim fighters against the government of President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has killed a quarter of a million people and driven 8 million from their homes - has largely been absent from its campaign. But it is felt keenly here on the frontier.
“If you’re living somewhere and someone came and messed up your city, what would you do,” Hocazade, a 20-year old barber, said as he described taking to the streets last August after word spread of a local man murdered by a Syrian.
“People are angry at the AK Party because of what the Syrians have done here,” he said.
Hocazade will vote for the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in Sunday’s election, which could see the AKP lose its parliamentary majority for the first time since it stormed to power in 2002. He wants Syrian refugees to remain in camps.
Turkey is hosting 1.8 million Syrians, more than any of Syria’s other neighbors and one of the biggest refugee populations in a single country anywhere in the world.
It has also been one of Assad’s most vociferous opponents, insisting that only his removal from power can bring peace. Ankara has enabled Syria’s political opposition to organize on Turkish soil and allowed thousands of foreign fighters across its borders to join the rebel ranks.
While many Turks, including AKP supporters, are proud of their country’s humanitarian response, frustrations have grown as the numbers of refugees have swollen. And there is far less public support for what many see as its aggressive political intervention in the domestic affairs of their neighbor.
“The AKP never convinced even its own constituency that its policy in Syria was justified from a national interest standpoint,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
“Morally, fine. But they are not running an NGO.”
Erdogan is seeking enough of an AKP majority on Sunday for the party to change the constitution unopposed and usher in a full presidential system, handing him executive powers.
In previous elections, the party has been able to count on the support of Gaziantep, a hub for trade with the Middle East and North Africa which has seen its exports grow more than tenfold since 2002 to $6.7 billion last year.
Now, the province is host to more than 300,000 registered refugees, almost a sixth of its population, 51,000 of them in four camps and one container city, according to Deputy Mayor Nursal Cakiroglu. The rest eke out their living independently, competing with locals for jobs and accommodation.
The war “has affected our economy because Syria was our route to other Arab countries,” said Mehmet Seker, a medical doctor and parliamentary candidate for the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
AKP candidates in Gaziantep did not respond to requests for an interview.
Erdogan’s critics say his Syria policy, banking on Assad’s departure, has exacerbated the problem. Much of Syria is in the hands of Islamic State militants, while other opposition-held areas are controlled by a disordered patchwork of rebels.
“We did not have a right to intervention. They supported the rebels against Assad and that is not acceptable for us... it is a Syrian problem,” said Celal Dogan, a Gaziantep candidate for the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The HDP, a left-wing party with origins in Kurdish nationalism, hopes to cross a 10 percent national threshold to enter parliament as a party for the first time.
Turkey has been praised internationally for its open-door policy on refugees and the high standard of its camps. But the picture is more complicated beyond the formal aid effort.
Ali Guducu, head of the DISK labor union confederation in Gaziantep, said Syrian workers were being exploited and that Turks were growing resentful.
“Locals have started to feel unsafe... Factories told them they can each be replaced by two Syrian workers,” he said.
Cakiroglu, the deputy mayor, said proposals were being drawn up to give work permits to Syrian refugees, ensuring they receive the minimum wage and pay taxes. So far only 2,500-3,000 nationally had been formally registered to work, he said.
Guducu highlighted what he said was the injustice of Syrians who had come to Turkey and set up unregistered businesses, including factories, without paying tax or making social security contributions for their workers.
Gaziantep has thrived on cross-border trade for generations. The AKP, which sees itself as a champion of the working class, has given incentives to investors to help build local industry, roads and infrastructure.
But for some of the province’s workers, the party’s accomplishments risk being undone.
“Erdogan is losing the workers, the normal people,” said Hocazade’s neighbor Ughur, taking a break from his work in a small print-shop.
Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff