Refugees and Elections: The Effects of Syrians on Voting Behavior in Turkey

Ali Fisunoğlu and Deniz Ş. Sert

International Migration, Volume 57, Issue 2 (2019), Pages 298-312


There were 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey as of February 2018. Overall Syrian refugees comprise 4.4 percent of the total population of Turkey but there is substantial variation in the number of refugees and their ratio to the local population across provinces. Exploiting the geographical variation of refugees, the authors examine whether Syrian refugee inflows impacted voting behavior in Turkey using the outcome of the June 2015 national election. Recent literature on the impact of refugees on electoral behavior in host countries suggests that the presence of refugees causes a decline in the support for the ruling parties and an increase in the votes of anti-migrant, far right movements. Drawing on a unique subnational dataset and ordinary least squares (OLS), generalized least squares (GLS), and difference-in-differences (DiD) regressions, the study compares cities hosting few refugees (control group) with cities with large refugee populations (treatment group) to determine whether significant differences in voting patterns emerged. The authors find a negative, but insignificant, impact on the incumbent political party, the Justice and Development Party (JDP). The strongest determinant of the JDP’s vote share in a province is its vote share in the same province in the previous election. The authors suggest several reasons for these results: the impact of refugees is likely to be higher in local elections; there was still no anti-immigrant rhetoric in Turkey; rationalist, economic voting models do not provide a robust explanation for the behavior of the Turkish electorate, and the increasing polarization in the country has seen voters, especially JDP ones, weigh ideological cues much more heavily, making partisanship a more critical variable; the effect of refugees on Turkish elections have not been significant because the JDP has been successful in delivering social and public services. The authors suggest that the main policy implication is that continuous delivery of social and public services, especially to those citizens who would consider refugees as a group competing for the same resources, is key to keep anti-immigrant tensions under control. Increased access to and effective provision of social and public services together with constructive framing of refugees in the media can reduce tensions emerging with immigration.