In the first round of Turkey’s crucial presidential election, a third nationalist candidate and his alliance have emerged as potentially decisive forces for the fate of Sunday’s runoff.
In polls held on May 14, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 49.5 percent of the ballots, while main opposition alliance candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.8 percent.
The third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who was unknown to the Turkish public before the election, won 5.2 percent of the election with the support of the newly formed ultra-nationalist alliance ATA led by the Victory Party of Umit Ozdag, an experienced real politician. In the parliamentary elections on May 14, the Alliance secured 2.4 percent of the vote.
With such an outcome, the nationalist candidate and alliance emerged as possible kingmakers after the first round – until the recent collapse, that is.
Analysts say some of their votes came from supporters of a fourth candidate, Muharrem Ince, who withdrew from the race days before the first round, as well as some younger people who dislike either Erdogan or Kilicdaroglu.
Mesut Yegen, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Sehir University, said there is a voting bloc that does not want to see any major candidate for president and is unimpressed by the main political parties in Turkey today.
“Many of them have secular sensibilities and are therefore against the faith-based conservative politics of Erdogan and his People’s Alliance,” Yegen told Al Jazeera.
He added that this group is disturbed by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party’s support for Kilicdaroglu and the cooperation between the two sides.
Ogan, an international relations academic, 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 kicked out.
Since then, he has been away from politics until he was named a presidential candidate through a deal he reached with Ozdag.
Meanwhile, Ozdag, a professor of international relations, is a former MHP deputy leader who later held the same position in the IYI party, which is in Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, before being kicked out and forming the Victory Party in 2021.
The party has built up public support by using ultra-nationalist rhetoric in a country hit hard by its worst economic crisis in decades, and by embracing anti-refugee sentiment that is spreading rapidly among struggling Turks.
According to Etyen Mahcupyan, a political analyst and writer, Ogan was without a significant voter base before the elections, and if he had disagreed with Ozdag about his candidacy, the latter would have found another candidate to support.
“The name Ogan might only mean something to people in narrow nationalist political and academic circles, but Ozdag and the Victory Party actually established a voter base,” Mahcupyan told Al Jazeera.
The platform of Ogan and Ozdag’s election campaign was strongly against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
Their agenda revolved around promises to send the country’s millions of refugees back to their homelands and harsh language towards “terrorist” groups – as well as, they say, corruption and nepotism in government.
However, in an unexpected twist on May 22, Ogan supported Erdogan in the second round of voting, leading to the end of the ATA Alliance on the same day.
Ogan told a televised news conference that “stability” played a big role in his decision, noting that Erdogan’s alliance secured a parliamentary majority in May 14 polls. The politician did not reveal any possible promises by Erdogan to side with him.
“For the stability of the country, it is important that the majority in the parliament and the president be from the same alliance,” said Ogan, asking the people who voted for him to support the current president in the second round.
Ozdag disagreed and said that Ogan’s position was his own. Two days later, Ozdag threw his weight behind Kilicdaroglu at a joint press conference after the two politicians signed a memorandum of understanding.
The agreement includes strong statements on the repatriation of refugees to Turkey within a year, the fight against corruption, nepotism and “terror”, as well as the protection of the unitary nature of the Turkish state.
Mahcupyan said the ATA Alliance, which only existed for two months, could have played a key role in the vote, but individual agendas led to its downfall.
“Ogan seems to have thought about his individual career without worrying about the future support of the voters while making his decision, with the aim of returning to the MHP and continuing politics there. “Maybe he sees himself as the next leader of the party,” he said.
“However, the Victory Party increased its organization 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 election, so he has to stand with the opposition, the same way the party has established itself until today.”
The big question a day before the crucial vote is what effect this split in the potential coalition of “kings” will have on the outcome of the second round.
Yegen said the vast majority of Zafer Party voters would back Kilicdaroglu after the deal between him and Ozdag, and after the main opposition candidate adopted a stance they liked over the past two weeks.
He added that Ogan’s other voters could answer in three different ways in the second round. “Some will lean towards Erdogan, others towards Kilicdaroglu, while the rest will not go to the ballot box,” Yegen said.
Mahcupyan noted that most of those who vote for Ogan do not have an emotional connection with him. “They voted for him because they wanted a third time separate from the other two candidates,” he said.