ANTAKYA, Turkey: The Turkish government’s policy of keeping its border with Syria open despite the war there cost the ruling party control of the border province of Hatay in weekend local elections.
Voters punished the government in a striking upset, amid a wave of victories for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party elsewhere in Sunday’s polls.
The open border provides a lifeline for rebel-held areas, letting humanitarian aid in and refugees out. But critics say it has allowed radical fighters to cross the border unchecked and burdened a fragile economy with the displaced.
Thousands of people celebrated overnight in the old city center of Antakya, the ancient Antioch, and administrative capital of Hatay, honking car horns and waving the red flags of the secularist opposition CHP as news of its victory emerged.
“The Syrian crisis and the problems resulting from it are the biggest worries for people in Hatay,” said Lutfu Savas, who defected from AK and won Sunday’s mayoral race for the CHP. “We want peace and for people to go back to Syria.”
The CHP had little cause for celebration elsewhere, as Erdogan’s AKP won about 46 percent of the vote nationwide. But in Hatay the CHP overturned an 18 percent lead for the AKP in the last local election five years ago, winning 41.2 percent of the vote to the AKP’s 40.3 percent.
Erdogan has backed opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad and opened its border to let in 900,000 Syrian refugees, built camps to house them and gave free passage into Syria for the armed fighters.
Residents punished Erdogan’s government for policies they say have destabilized society, wrecked the economy, brought floods of refugees, and seen rebel fighters and radicals mingle among them.
“If this government goes on, they will force us into a war with Syria. For years we went to Syria and now we can’t,” said Seyhan Gullum, a 29-year-old decorator.
“The AKP says the refugees are guests. But the radicals are destabilizing Hatay and dividing the different religions that used to live happily together,” said Caner, a 27-year-old law student whose family had previously supported Erdogan.
Erdogan’s critics, especially among Hatay’s large Alevi Muslim community, say the open-door policy has fed a sense that Hatay itself is a war zone and has scared away badly needed tourists. Locals complain that refugees, most of whom live outside official camps, accept lower wages. They say house prices are rocketing and fear worsening violence.
In May, twin car bombs killed 43 people and wounded more than 100 in a shopping district in the Hatay town of Reyhanli. The government said it suspected Syrian involvement.
“AKP is separating people from each other, dividing them into groups. With the Syrians we’re like brothers, but now there is racism, factionalism,” said 34-year-old Sakir, a contractor.
“We were so good to Syria but now they treat us like we’re part of the war,” he said.