The first round of Turkey’s key presidential elections saw a third nationalist candidate and his alliance potentially emerge as a determining force on the fate of the run-off vote that takes place on Sunday.
In the May 14 polls, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored 49.5 percent of the ballots, while the candidate of the main opposition alliance, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, acquired 44.8 percent.
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The third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who was a not familiar figure to the Turkish public before the polls, took 5.2 percent in the election with the backing of the newly established ultranationalist ATA Alliance led by the Victory Party of Umit Ozdag, a seasoned far-right politician. The alliance secured 2.4 percent of the votes in the May 14 parliamentary election.
With such an outcome, the nationalist nominee and the alliance emerged as possible kingmakers in the aftermath of the first round – until their recent fallout, that is.
Analysts say some of their votes came from the backers of a fourth candidate, Muharrem Ince, who withdrew from the race days before the first round, as well as some younger people who dislike both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu.
Mesut Yegen, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Sehir University, said there is a voter bloc that wants to see neither main contender as president and is unimpressed with the mainstream political parties in Turkey today.
“Many of them have secular sensitivities and, therefore, they are against the religion-based conservative politics Erdogan and his People’s Alliance pursue,” Yegen told Al Jazeera.
He added this group is also disturbed by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party’s support for Kilicdaroglu and cooperation between the two sides.
Ogan, an academic of international relations, entered parliament in 2011 with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – the closest ally of Erdogan and his party today – before launching an unsuccessful bid for its leadership in 2015, after which he was expelled.
He had been away from politics since then until he was named a presidential candidate through a deal he reached with Ozdag.
Meanwhile, Ozdag, a professor of international relations, is a former deputy leader of the MHP who later took the same position in the IYI Party, which is in Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, before being expelled and establishing the Victory Party in 2021.
The party has grown public support using ultranationalist rhetoric in a country hit hard by its worst economic crisis in decades, and embracing anti-refugee sentiment rapidly spreading among struggling Turks.
According to Etyen Mahcupyan, a political analyst and writer, Ogan was without a significant voter base before the polls, and if he did not agree with Ozdag on his candidacy, the latter would have found another contender to side with.
“The name of Ogan might mean something only to people in narrow nationalistic political and academic circles, but Ozdag and the Victory Party have actually established a voter base,” Mahcupyan told Al Jazeera.
Ogan and Ozdag’s election campaign platform was strongly opposed to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
Their agenda revolved around a promise to send millions of refugees in the country back to their homelands and used harsh language towards “terror” groups – as well as, what they allege, are corruption and nepotism in the government.
However, in an unexpected twist on May 22, Ogan endorsed Erdogan in the run-off vote, which led to the end of the ATA Alliance the same day.
Ogan told a televised news conference that “stability” played a large role in making his decision, noting Erdogan’s alliance secured a parliamentary majority in the polls on May 14. The politician did not reveal any possible promises made by Erdogan for siding with him.
“It is important for stability of the country that the majority of the parliament and the president are from the same alliance,” Ogan said, asking people who voted for him to support the incumbent in the second round.
Ozdag disagreed and said Ogan’s stance was his own. Two days later, Ozdag threw his weight behind Kilicdaroglu in a joint press conference after the two politicians signed a memorandum of understanding.
The deal includes strong statements on the repatriation of refugees in Turkey within a year, the fight against corruption, nepotism and “terror”, as well as protection of the unitary nature of the Turkish state.
Mahcupyan said the ATA Alliance, which existed a mere two months, could have played a key role in the vote but individual agendas led to its downfall.
“Ogan looks like he thought about his own individual career without worrying about any future voter support while deciding, aiming to return to the MHP and continue politics there. Perhaps he sees himself as the next leader of the party,” he said.
“However, the Victory Party has grown its organisation and gathered a voter base as an opposition party,” the analyst continued.
“Umit Ozdag has goals for his party and wants it to stay afloat after the polls so he has to stand with the opposition, in the same line the party has established itself up until today.”
The big question a day before the key vote is what effect this division in the potential “kingmaker” coalition will have on the outcome of the run-off.
Yegen said the vast majority of the Zafer Party voters will back Kilicdaroglu following the deal between himself and Ozdag, and after the main opposition candidate adopted a stance appealing to them over the last two weeks.
He added the rest of Ogan’s voters may respond in three different ways in the second round. “Some will lean towards Erdogan, others will move in the direction of Kilicdaroglu, while the remaining will not go to the ballot box,” said Yegen.
Mahcupyan noted most of those voting for Ogan have no emotional connection to him. “They voted for him because they wanted a third path separate from the other two candidates,” he said.