David O'Byrne in Istanbul -
Arguably the most significant municipal election result from Turkey's local polls on March 30 slipped by almost unnoticed.
The election of Lutfu Savas as mayor of Turkey's southern Hatay province lacked the controversy of the result in Turkey's capital Ankara, which is still being contested amid allegations of fraud, but being surrounded on two sides by neighbouring Syria this region has suffered more than most of Turkey from the effects of Syria's ongoing civil war and events over the border are now reaching into the heart of Turkish politics.
Savas' re-election as mayor was noteworthy not only because this time around he was running under the banner of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) rather than the governing Justice and Development party (AKP), but also because it came only four days after the release onto the internet of another illicitly recorded meeting of top AKP officials.
This time the tape was of a meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, his undersecretary Feridun Siniroglu, the head of Turkish intelligence Hakan Fidan and the deputy head of the military General Yasar Gurel, during which they apparently discussed launching a "false flag operation" against Syria as justification for a military incursion just days before Turkey went to the polls on March 30.
Whether or not such an operation could have been launched is unclear, but with Davutoglu himself decrying the leak as a "declaration of war" and President Abdullah Gul denouncing it as an “act of espionage” and vowing "no tolerance" for the perpetrators, there seems little doubt that on this occasion at least, the leaked recording is indeed genuine.
Luckily for the AKP the leaked recording appears to have had little effect on the overall result of the nationwide local elections, which were being regarded as a referendum on the rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP, recently the subject of a slew of corruption allegations. The AKP performed strongly, taking just over 45% of the vote, but many believe the most recent tape may well have helped tip the balance against the AKP in Hatay.
"There is increasing unease – look at Hatay, the AKP lost," says Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science and senior scholar at Istanbul Policy centre, pointing to a recent poll that showed 72% of Turks are opposed to any military intervention in Syria.
"If this leak has had the indirect consequence of cutting short any military adventure, that can only be for the best," Aktar says. "Turks don't want any war with Syria, it's as simple as that."
Syria though was posing increasingly serious problems for Turkey even before the leaking of the illicit recording.
Estimates of the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey vary, but the UN reckons it now exceeds 900,000, of which 582,000 are registered as refugees with the UNHCR and the majority of whom have settled in the provinces close to the Syrian border. Those who haven't registered presumed to be living on their own means in Turkey's major cities.
The UNHCR also estimates arrivals at between 500 and 2,000 a day, begging the question of how much longer Turkey can continue to absorb such large numbers. "Turkey is facing hard times because of the numbers of refugees coming," says Oral Calislar, veteran columnist on Turkish daily Radikal.
Turkey's "open border" policy means that any Syrians wishing to enter the country can, and if they are able to support themselves have no need to register as refugees.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Syrians now make up a large proportion of seasonal agricultural labour employed in the border regions. According to a report published last year by the EU Migration Policy Centre (MPC), many refugees are finding work in border regions, their employment tolerated by Turkish officials who reason that allowing refugees to work keeps them occupied and out of trouble.
But the MPC also reports that rates of pay are as low as €7 a day, undercutting local seasonal labour rates. What long-term effect this will have on Turkey's major unemployment problem remains to be seen. According to the latest Turkish unemployment figures, the 10.0% jobless rate in December was flat from the year before but up on the 9.9% rate in November, with analysts predicting a rise to 11% this year as the economy slows.
However Turkey's unemployment stats are notoriously vague, reflecting an official labour force participation of only 50%, far lower than Turkey's European neighbours, making any effects difficult to gauge.
Economic effects aside, Turkey has also been experiencing increased security issues. Villages in Hatay province are regularly hit by mortar shells fired from Syria – although, by whom is not clear, with many blaming fighting between the Secular Free Syrian Army and armed Islamic militants of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The latter has found Turkey's open border policy an easy way of moving both volunteer fighters and weapons into Syria with predictable results.
Two weeks ago three policemen were killed in western Turkey by Albanian militants armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades apparently heading for Syria. Many warn that such incidents can only become more common. "To begin with, Turkey was supporting all the opposition groups, but now ISIS has shown itself to be an enemy of Turkey," explains Oral Calislar. "Getting involved in Syria's internal politics wasn't a good idea for Turkey."
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