Turkey’s presidential rivals plotted their runoff strategy behind closed doors Tuesday while Sinan Ogan, the nationalist candidate who unexpectedly garnered 3 million votes in the first round, basked in glory, enjoying being called the kingmaker.
After a long Sunday night in Turkey’s nail-biting dual presidential and parliamentary elections, the country’s electoral authority announced that incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the first round with 49.5% (27.1 million votes). Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, tipped by many polls as the winner, received 44.9% (24.6 million). However, the surprise came from Sinan Ogan, the initially overlooked candidate of the nationalist ATA Alliance who received 5.2% (2.8 million), leading many pundits in Turkey and beyond to conclude that nationalism was the winner of the first round.
Ogan made his rounds with national and international media saying he has yet to decide whom to endorse. “We will continue our talks with both sides for one or two days. Once we make a decision, whoever we endorse will win,” Ogan told CNN International’s Becky Anderson.
But many analysts think that the man without a party and institutional structure to support him might be overplaying his hand. “What he got were mostly protest votes,” Zeynep Gurcanli, a political commentator on the pro-Kilicdaroglu television channel KRT, said. “They are not necessarily his to give.” Gurcanli also expressed doubt that what he would bring to Kilicdaroglu would be worth alienating Kurdish or leftist support worth around 8-10%.
Elected to parliament by the Erdogan-allied MHP a decade ago, Ogan left his party because he disagreed with its support for the executive presidency system in particular and its alliance with the AKP in general. He reemerged in 2023 when he joined forces with Umit Ozdag, another breakaway from the MHP who founded his unabashedly xenophobic Victory Party to become the presidential candidate of ATA alliance.
He has set five conditions for his endorsement of a candidate in the runoff. They include the forced return of Syrian refugees, good economic governance and strict adherence to the principles of the secular democratic republic based on the principles of Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk as endorsed in the constitutional articles.
But the most important one concerns what he considers terror groups. “Those who do not distance themselves from terrorism should not come knocking on our door,” he said, explicitly naming the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Hezbollah and the supporters of US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.
Nationalists are critical of Erdogan’s alliance with Huda-Par, which has its roots in the Hezbollah movement, and Kilicdaroglu’s links with the HDP, whom they consider a proxy of the PKK. The HDP/Green Left has expressed its support for Kilicdaroglu’s presidential candidacy but fielded its own candidates, winning 62 seats in the new parliament. Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed ex-leader of the HDP who still has influence over the Kurdish voters, supported Kilicdaroglu with repeated calls for change, including after the first round. Their impact — between 8 and 10% — will be significant if they do not throw in the towel before the second round.
While Erdogan’s People’s Alliance has a closer electoral alliance with Huda-Par, the incumbent president played the nationalist card much better, including with a doctored video of PKK militants purportedly singing Kilicdaroglu’s campaign song. AKP trolls claimed online that Kilicdaroglu had promised to stop military operations against the PKK and its bases in Iraq and Syria. ”My nation will not hand this country over to a president who got support from Qandil,” said Erdogan, referring to the Iraqi mountain range where PKK commanders are based.
On which side Ogan will lean is a matter of wide speculation. Though he has had harsh words against Erdogan and is said to have “an ego problem” with the MHP’s chair Devlet Bahceli, Ogan may ally himself with the leading candidate if he sees a role for himself as a successor to Bahceli.
Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s foreign policy tsar, told the pro-government AHaber Monday that Ogan was “closer to the AKP” due to his views on national unity and security. “I know him well from when we were both chairmen of think tanks and he is very clear on his position on terrorism, refugees and national unity,” Kalin said.
Like Kalin, some CHP members said Tuesday the Nation’s Alliance agreed with Ogan on many issues. “Sinan Ogan is a nationalist who believes in this country just like us,” said Engin Ozkoc, a senior member of the CHP, adding that Kilicdaroglu had already talked to Ogan on the phone and that talks were going on.
“AKP, through its alliance with Huda-Par, brought Hezbollah to parliament,” Ozkoc said. “We, on the other hand, have always stood against terrorism.”
This is a shortened version of an article originally published in Al-Monitor. Click here for the full version.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.