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Turkey's nationalist candidate basks in glory ahead of Erdogan-Kilicdaroglu runoff

Incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his secularist challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu each plot strategy behind closed doors as nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan ponders whom to support.
Sinan Ogan

IZMIR, Turkey — 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%. 

Ogan's hour

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.” 

Opposition to make changes

On Monday and Tuesday, sadness and defeat — as well as soul-searching and scapegoating — dominated the opposition camp, particularly Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), which faces an uphill battle to defeat Erdogan in the second round. Though he is the first Erdogan challenger to see a second round, he has to overcome demotivation and fatigue among his supporters and counter Erdogan, who will appeal to the electorate to vote for consistency and stability. The parliamentary distribution also provides an advantage to Erdogan, who will appeal to Turkish voters’ aversion to shaky coalitions. In the final results, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged as the top party with 267 seats, followed by the CHP, which secured 169 seats in the 600-strong parliament. The AKP's ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) secured 50 seats and the CHP's ally the Good Party 44.

In what many pundits deemed a political mistake, Kilicdaroglu made no public appearances Monday and Tuesday after a brief presser with the senior figures of his alliance after midnight Sunday, when he acknowledged that there would be a runoff. On Monday, he released a short video in which he atypically pounded on the table to say that he was “still there.” While some of his allies and his media-shy wife, Selvi, released similar messages, Meral Aksener, the chair of the Good Party who had expressed misgivings about Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, kept oddly quiet. On Tuesday, when most people expected him to go before the cameras to explain his runoff strategy, he simply tweeted a few messages including one appealing to young people to vote again in the second round and be part of the change. “Clearly, there are more people who want change than those who do not,” he said.

Onursal Adiguzel, who ran the CHP’s IT team that tracked the vote Sunday night, handed in his resignation following widespread accusations over the party’s faulty vote-tracking that allegedly led to Mansur Yavas and Imamoglu, the CHP’s mayoral duo and vice president candidates, to announce erroneously that Kilicdaroglu had the lead and could even win in the first round. Adiguzel rejected the accusations. Ankara insiders say that there have been resignations and changes from the communication team as well. Turkish media reported that local Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancioglu, the architect behind the CHP's win in Istanbul, was taking over the monitoring process, but the party has not confirmed the reports.

But the parliamentary vote count was challenged by two political parties that announced Tuesday they had appealed to the electoral authority for a recount of more than 1,500 ballot boxes. Irfan Degirmenci, a member of the Workers Party of Turkey, said that they have requested a recount of 500 boxes in Izmir, an opposition stronghold where Erdogan had 31% of the vote in the presidential race and the AKP had 25% in the parliamentary polls. “This may lead to recounting of all votes in the city,” he tweeted. 

The pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (under which the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] ran) also announced that they filed about 1,000 cases of irregularity, saying what was logged on the ballot tallies did not match the formal vote count on paper. But the party's representative in the electoral board said all had been resolved.

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