At the inflection point on a long election night, just as Turks were sweating over an abrupt delay in voting data streaming in from the big cities, Turkey’s third man in the 2023 presidential race stepped into the spotlight.
Supporters of the secular opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, were on a high alert for electoral irregularities since the data lag came just as their candidate, buoyed by the urban vote, was catching up with the incumbent, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The election was up for grabs at that stage, with both camps declaring they were leading the polls. The rival parties were united, however, in their hopes for a swift win to put an end to the jitters over who will lead Turkey for the next five years.
But Sinan Ogan, the longshot third candidate in the presidential race, was already predicting a second round, with neither Erdogan nor Kilicdaroglu crossing the 50 percent vote mark necessary to avoid a runoff.
“We see a high probability that the elections will go to the second round,” tweeted the far-right nationalist candidate, setting the stage for his upcoming relevance in a runoff.
The 2023 presidential election was set to be a tough fight between frontrunners Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Few paid much attention to Ogan, the candidate for the obscure, ultra-nationalist Ancestor Alliance.
But on Sunday night, the Ancestor Alliance candidate appeared to be everywhere. At times, his media appearances were frustrating for Turkish voters waiting to hear from the two main candidates as stress levels peaked. “Come on!” moaned a Kilicdaroglu supporter on Twitter as Fox (Turkey) conducted a live interview with Ogan. The comments on social media during the interminable wait were often biting and incisive. “And we’re now 10 minutes into an interview with the third candidate,” noted the Twitter account of a Turkish politics website. “Perhaps the main opposition alliance are [sic] waiting for him to finish before making an appearance. He’s not someone they want to offend, after all.”
Ogan won 5.2 percent of the first-round vote, a potentially critical slice of the pie in a hotly contested race, enabling the 55-year-old politician to cast himself as a potential kingmaker ahead of the May 28 second round.
‘Fifty shades of nationalism’
A former academic with a master’s degree in financial law, Ogan obtained a PhD in international relations and political science at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations before joining politics.
A member of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Ogan was elected to the Turkish parliament from his native Igdir region in eastern Turkey in 2011.
But his association with the MHP ended in the lead-up to the 2017 constitutional referendum, when the longtime MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, supported Erdogan’s bid to introduce an executive presidency.
Ogan was among a handful of senior MHP figures who disagreed with their party chief’s alliance with Erdogan as the Turkish leader campaigned to scrap the parliamentary system.
The group of younger MHP figures who opposed the aging Bahceli’s pro-Erdogan position included Meral Aksener, a powerful female politician in a male-dominated field, who went on to form the Good (Iyi) Party.
Another MHP breakaway politician was Umit Ozdag, who joined the Good Party before splitting to form the far-right, anti-immigrant Victory (Zafer) Party.
In the 2023 race, Ogan and Ozdag joined forces to form the ultra-nationalist Ancestor Alliance. Aksener, their former-MHP colleague, joined Kilicdaroglu’s National Alliance, better known as the “Table of Six” for the six parties in a grouping dominated by the CHP.
Split across party and alliance lines, the three ex-MHP politicians tap into the ultra-nationalist base at election time in a deeply nationalist state.
“There are almost fifty shades of nationalism in Turkey,” said Guney Yildiz, a Turkey research analyst. “Turkey’s main political movement is nationalist, and the nationalists are everywhere: they include conservative secularists and left-wing politicians. It doesn’t leave much room for political manoeuvre” for candidates standing for elections.
‘Not an entrenched vote’
The morning after the presidential first round, Ogan was in kingmaker mode, setting the terms of his support for the two candidates in the May 28 runoff.
In an interview on Monday with Reuters, Ogan said he could only support Kilicdaroglu in the runoff if the Table of Six candidate agreed to offer no concessions to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
While the HDP is not part of the Table of Six alliance, the Kurdish party endorsed Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy in the presidential race.
Both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are expected to meet Ogan in person in the coming days. Given their conservative views, Erdogan and Ogan are seen as easier allies. “Our chances in the second round are very, very high. Ogan now holds the key,” a high-level official from Erdogan’s ruling AKP told Reuters.
But Yildiz cautioned against overplaying Ogan’s potential role in the runoff. “He won the reaction vote of voters who didn’t see themselves supporting any of the two [major] blocs. I’m not sure it’s a vote for Sinan Ogan or just a reaction against the existing blocs. It’s not an entrenched vote.”
With the final score of Sunday’s vote settling at 49.51 percent for Erdogan, some analysts also noted that Ogan’s role in the runoff slipped from kingmaker to courtier as the “sultan” of Turkish politics, who has been in power for 20 years, had the electoral momentum.
Reporting from Ankara, FRANCE 24’s Jasper Mortimer noted that Erdogan was holding the cards in his dealings with Ogan. “Some of Sinan Ogan’s voters will vote for Erdogan. But the bottom line is Erdogan clearly won, he needs just 0.5 percent to make 50 percent of the vote. They’re not asking him for support, maybe Erdogan is offering him something, but Erdogan doesn’t need to,” explained Mortimer.
Playing the nationalist card on the campaign trail
On the campaign trail, Kilicdaroglu offered a message of inclusivity, promising a break from the clampdowns on freedoms and dissent under the last decade of Erdogan’s 20-year domination of Turkish politics.
But with the country’s nationalists and ultra-nationalists sweeping 22 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, the political zeitgeist appeared to be favouring a “pure Turkish” rhetoric.
“The fact that Sinan Ogan won above five percent of the vote underlines that unadulterated ultra-nationalism is well and alive in Turkey,” political risk consultant Anthony Skinner told the AFP.
On the campaign trail, Erdogan played the nationalist card, accusing Kilicdaroglu of being a puppet of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the armed group that has waged a 30-year war against the Turkish state.
“My nation will not hand this country over to a president who got support from Qandil,” said Erdogan, referring to the PKK’s camps in neighbouring northern Iraq. He also vowed not to release “Selo” – as he refers to the HDP’s jailed leader, Selahattin Demirtas. Kilicdaroglu had promised to release Demirtas, philanthropist Osman Kavala and other high-profile jailed opposition figures if he was elected president.
At a campaign rally earlier this month, Erdogan displayed a doctored video splicing footage of Kilicdaroglu’s campaign with footage of a PKK militant in battle fatigues.
In his interview with Reuters, Ogan said his goal was to remove two mainly Kurdish parties from Turkey’s “political equation”. While the pro-Kurdish HDP has endorsed Kilicdaroglu, the Kurdish-Islamist Huda-Par backs Erdogan. “The election results showed that we succeeded in this,” he added.
For his part, Kilicdaroglu has vowed to prevail in the runoff and has called on his supporters to be patient. But as the opposition absorbs the shock of Sunday’s vote results, and with barely two weeks to go before the runoff, analysts were still scrambling to figure set the second round campaign tone.
“The nationalist Good Party should have been more visible on the ground,” said Yildiz. “The fact is, Kemal Kilicdaroglu lost the election, but there are many lessons, many different angles to interpret. The one thing the opposition needs to be more proactive about is exposing fake news. The clip from the PKK was completely false, but I think it had some resonance with voters.”