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A far-right nationalist politician may decide Erdogan’s political fate

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Until Sunday, Sinan Ogan was a fringe, ultranationalist Turkish politician virtually unknown outside Turkey. But for the next two weeks, he may become the most important figure in Turkish politics, potentially deciding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political fate.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) on Monday said neither Erdogan nor his main rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu received more than 50% of the votes required to become president, taking the race to a second round.

Preliminary results from the YSK showed Erdogan as having received 49.51% of the vote, while Kilicdaroglu had 44.88%.  

Ogan, the third candidate, received 5.17%, enough to swing the runoff vote in favor of either of the candidates. With that, he found himself as the kingmaker in the most important elections in modern Turkey’s history.

The 55-year-old has been keen to avoid throwing his weight behind either candidate.

“We will consult with our voter base for our decision in the runoff,” he told Reuters on Monday. “But we already made clear that the fight against terrorism and sending refugees back are our red lines.”

Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul, said that Ogan is critical of both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, but that the majority of his voters are closer to president than his main rival, noting that the parliamentary election results already gave Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party a leading advantage.

Berkay Mandiraci, a Turkey analyst at the Belgium-based International Crisis Group think tank, said on Twitter that the momentum is in Erdogan’s favor, adding that opinion polls that suggested otherwise ahead of the vote failed to capture an undercurrent in favor of the ruling alliance.

“(There were) very few shifts compared to 2018 elections despite economic challenges, the covid-19 pandemic, and devastating earthquakes,” he wrote.

Kemalists to decide

It is unclear if Ogan will set conditions for his support for either candidate and what they may be, but his previous affiliations and political positions may give an indication as to how his backers may vote.

Ogan said on Sunday night that Turkish nationalists and Kemalists will be the “determinants of the runoff.” Kemalism refers to Turkey’s staunchly secular, pro-republican state ideology as envisaged by its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Kilicdaroglu’s center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the main Kemalist party in the country, established by the Turkish republic’s founder himself. In recent years it has softened its position on the role of religion in the country and that of Kurds, a sizeable ethnic minority that has long complained of persecution, and from which anti-state militancy has emerged at times. For Sunday’s elections, it courted defectors from Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning AK Party and even received an endorsement from the pro-Kurdish HDP party and its jailed leader.

How does the voting process in Turkey work? I caught up with @ertim_orkun of ‘Vote and Beyond’ at an Istanbul voting station to see it firsthand. “I believe the system is quite safe,” he said. #TurkeyElections

— Becky Anderson (@BeckyCNN) May 14, 2023

Somer said Ogan’s policies are anti-immigrant and anti-PKK, referring to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is officially regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. He sees the HDP’s endorsement of Kilicdaroglu as problematic, Somer said, but he is also opposed to Erdogan joining forces with the Islamist Huda Par (Free Cause) party, which is affiliated to the Sunni Islamist Kurdish Hezbollah.

Asked by journalists in March if he would endorse Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu should there be a runoff, Ogan said that his party would look at each candidate’s “national stances and competence” as well as “at the situation of affiliation with terrorism and seeking help from terrorism.”

“We will decide with common sense,” Ogan said. “Common sense shows us that we may not be able to promise heaven, but it’s time to close the gates of hell.”

Ogan ran for president as the candidate for the ATA alliance of like-minded nationalist parties. But his political career began with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where he spent six years before splitting with it, partly due to its growing closeness with Erdogan’s AK Party, according to Turkish media.

Formerly in the opposition, the MHP joined the People Alliance that is led by Erdogan’s AK Party in this election.

Ceylan Akca, a parliamentary candidate for Green Left Party in largely Kurdish Diyarbakir province, said that Ogan’s votes show the rise of a right-wing, nationalist and anti-refugee wave in Turkey.

Somer said the election results on Sunday shed light on how polarized Turkey has become.

“When society is divided into two ossified rigid blocs that see each other as an existential threat, that is really hard to overcome,” he said, adding that despite the opposition’s attempts to overcome the nation’s fault lines, it was unable to successfully do so.

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