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Is this Turkish anti-immigrant party helping Erdogan?

Critics argue that anti-immigrant Victory Party’s leader Umit Ozdag’s opposition has benefited President Recep Tayyip Erdogan so far.
Umit Ozdag, leader of the nationalist Victory Party, gestures as he speaks to the media after police blocked his attempt to challenge the Turkish interior minister to a public face-off, in front of the Ministry of the Interior, Ankara, Turkey, May 6, 2022.

Turkey never had an openly anti-immigrant political party, until the Victory Party (ZP) emerged as an ultranationalist establishment in August 2021. Although the party is part of the opposition, pundits question whether the party’s anti-immigrant stand aids Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Victory Party leader Umit Ozdag, who is a seasoned right-wing nationalist politician and a political science professor, founded the party after he resigned from the opposition Good Party. Ozdag speaks softly but with a simple snarky humor. His party's major slogan is, “The Victory Party will come and refugees will leave.” Ozdag, whose rhetoric is much like any other anti-immigrant far-right European party, paints refugees as the source of almost all of the problems that the country faces.

Popular support for the party varies according to pollsters with estimates ranging from 1% to some 4% — well below the election threshold to enter the parliament — but the party’s impact over Turkey’s political landscape seems stronger, according to experts.

“Just like the anti-immigrant parties in Europe have done, an anti-immigrant party in Turkey influences the agenda of both government and opposition parties,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, executive director of the Istanbul-based think tank IstanPol Institute. She told Al-Monitor, “Our field research dating back to 2018-19 indicates that the most prominent issue among voters was the ‘immigration problem.’”

According to Korkmaz, other opposition parties shied away capitalizing on the matter until the Victory Party dwelled on it. “But now the cat is out of the bag. This is no longer an issue that can be ignored because it is a high priority for a sizable portion of the electorate,” he added.

The Victory Party hasn't taken part in the main opposition-led alliance, with Ozdag declaring his party “standing at an equal distance from both alliances,” in reference to the opposition bloc and the alliance between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its nationalist allies. The Victory Party’s absence from the six-party opposition bloc has fueled speculations over Ozdag’s motives.

Political scientist Burak Bilgehan Ozpek describes Ozdag as a “useful figure” for the ruling party, recalling that when he was a member of the Good Party, Ozdag had been against a nation of joint opposition candidates during 2018 local elections that saw ​​the ruling AKP lose control of all major metropolis. 

“If his advice were heeded, the AKP would still be controlling Ankara and Istanbul. Today, Ozdag continues his attempts to redesign [the Good] Party’s discourse from outside, by utilizing nationalism,” Ozpek told Al-Monitor.

“Ozdag’s reckless and radical anti-immigrant bursts aim to distract opposition parties’ focus on the economy,” he argued. “Soon, Ozdag will play a crucial role in the closure of the HDP and will effectively silence opposition parties’ voices,” Ozpek added, using the acronyms of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party that faces a risk of closure due to an ongoing trial over alleged “terror charges.”

According to Ozpek, the opposition bloc’s possible objections to the HDP’s closure would potentially increase the Victory Party’s popular support that shares the similar political base with the nationalist Good Party.

“Thereby Ozdag is compelling opposition parties into silence,” Ozpek opined, which in turn could erode the Kurdish voters’ support for the opposition alliance.

The relative ease that Ozdag enjoys while he vilifies the government as scores of opposition officials grapple with various problems ranging from imprisonment to political bans also fuel speculations that his opposition party benefits Erdogan’s government. Recently, he challenged the interior minister to a fight over Ankara’s refugee policy. 

According to Kemal Ozkiraz, director of the Istanbul-based pollster Avrasya Research, Ozdag has been resonating in some segments of Turkey where anti-refugee sentiment runs high.

“Our polling from April shows that the party has increased its vote share to 2.2%. This is a significant percentage for a new political party,” he told Al-Monitor, adding that he was expecting that the party would continue to increase its support swiftly.

Ozdag's fierce criticism of the opposition bloc over several fronts including refugee policies has been another factor that further fanned the speculations over his party, prompting main opposition Republican People's Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu to label the Victory Party as a "so-called opposition" in May, in a thinly veiled response to Ozdag’s criticisms.

Ozdag’s strikes at both the government and opposition seems to become useful in raising his profile. “The Victory Party has become even more popular after the row Ozdag had with the interior minister. At that point, Ozdag started to criticize the opposition's immigration policies more than criticizing the government,” he said. 

Meanwhile, according to Ozkiraz, the Victory Party has also begun to impress some AKP voters 

“Initially, the Victory Party was receiving its votes mostly from the opposition. Now we are observing that it is receiving votes from the [ruling] coalition. So now, it is a bigger concern for the government,” he concluded.

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