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Turkish politician Sinan Oğan emerged from relative obscurity to international attention following his third-place finish in the first round of the presidential election. As the election night reached a decisive turning point, Oğan stepped into the spotlight, capturing the attention of supporters of the secular opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. However, Erdoğan’s lead remained strong, underscoring his self-sufficiency in securing electoral victories.

Despite emerging as a prominent figure with the potential to influence political successions as a kingmaker, a person exerting significant influence over the appointment of a political leader without being a viable candidate, Oğan exceeded expectations in the final vote count.

A Kingmaker: Oğan’s Role in the Turkish Election

In light of Erdoğan’s victory in the Turkish presidential election, the differences between him and Oğan may be less significant than initially perceived. Binali Yıldırım, the Deputy Chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), stated in a televised interview that there is little disagreement between Erdoğan and Oğan in terms of their rhetoric and policy positions. Yıldırım specifically mentioned that Oğan’s arguments on issues such as immigration and terrorism align closely with those of the AK Party-led People’s Alliance.

Although Oğan entered the campaign at the last minute, he managed to secure 5.1% of the vote in the initial round of the election, preventing both Erdoğan and his main opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, from obtaining the required majority. Oğan’s unexpected performance positioned him as a potential kingmaker and garnered attention from both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu, who sought to secure his endorsement for the second round.

Following the first round, Oğan assumed the role of a kingmaker and laid down his conditions for supporting the candidates in the runoff. He stated that he could only support Kilicdaroglu if the National Alliance candidate agreed to offer no concessions to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Although the HDP is not formally part of the National Alliance, it endorsed Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy. Oğan has also highlighted the importance of increased cooperation with Turkic states in Central Asia — a topic resonating with both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu, who have outlined similar plans for regional connectivity.

However, as a former member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and with his emphasis on fighting “terrorism,” Oğan appeared to lean closer to Erdoğan’s stance. After the first round of the Turkish election, the AK Party expressed interest in engaging in talks with him, which culminated in Oğan’s announcement that he will endorse Erdoğan in the second round of voting, revealing that their positions on key issues are not as divergent as initially thought.

Ogan’s Political Journey

Oğan, an academic with expertise in financial law and international relations, joined politics after completing his Ph.D. at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Initially a member of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Oğan parted ways with the party when its leader, Devlet Bahceli, supported Erdoğan’s campaign to introduce an executive presidency in the 2017 constitutional referendum. Oğan was among a group of dissenting MHP figures who disagreed with the party’s alliance with Erdoğan, and it led to his eventual involvement with the ultra-nationalist Ancestor Alliance alongside Umit Ozdag.

One of the key areas of Oğan’s argument revolves around the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yıldırım emphasized the shared concerns regarding the PKK’s activities and the establishment of a potential “terror state” by the YPG in northern Syria. These issues have been points of contention between Türkiye and the United States, which has supported the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State. However, Türkiye has criticized the U.S. for indirectly assisting a group it considers a terrorist organization.

Oğan’s strong anti-refugee rhetoric specifically directs at Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in Türkiye and it has drawn attention. However, Yıldırım reiterated the AK Party’s stance that these individuals are human beings and that their presence in Türkiye is a temporary situation. He emphasized the AK Party’s ongoing efforts to address the Syrian crisis and highlighted the challenges faced by the Turkish government in managing the refugee influx.

The Toxic Recipe: Nationalism Framed as Anti-Kurdish and Anti-Refugee

Turkish nationalism, as framed by nationalist parties like the MHP, often takes an anti-Kurdish stance. While claiming to oppose the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has conflicted with the Turkish military since 1984, the lines blur, and they fail to differentiate between the PKK and the Kurdish people. This leads to a troubling environment where Kurdish expression is suppressed, further destabilizing Türkiye. The nationalist narrative, with its intense hostility towards the Kurdish population, only serves to fuel radicalism on both sides, maintaining division and animosity.

The conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish groups traces back to the early 20th century when the region went through significant political transformations. The end of the Ottoman Empire and the following nation-state formations led to the division of Kurdish-inhabited areas among multiple countries, which marginalized the Kurdish population and restricted their rights. Over the years, various Kurdish groups, including the PKK, emerged to pursue their vision of self-determination and cultural preservation. The PKK, founded in 1978, initially sought an independent Kurdistan through armed struggle against the Turkish state. This led to a protracted conflict characterized by violent clashes, human rights abuses, and displacement of Kurdish communities. Along with other countries, Türkiye designated the PKK as a terrorist organization due to its armed activities and attacks targeting civilians.

Exploring the Shades: The Different Flavors of Turkish Nationalism

Within the Turkish political landscape, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of the governing alliance, the Good Party (IYI) of the opposition, and the Victory Party (ZP) supporting the third candidate offer distinct variations of nationalism similar to a diverse ideological buffet. While sharing a nationalist core, their differences are less ideological and more sociological.

The IYI Party, a breakaway faction from the MHP, primarily gathers support from urban areas and tends to embrace a less conservative stance. In contrast, the MHP enjoys broader backing from traditional and conservative populations residing in the Anatolian heartlands. These distinctions reflect the social and cultural contexts the parties have found their respective support.

Moreover, Oğan and the Victory Party exhibit some similarities with European ultra-nationalist parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France. These European parties, like the AfD, are known for their right-wing populist and nationalist platforms, expressing strong opposition to accepting refugees and advocating for stricter border controls and limitations on asylum seekers. While Oğan and the Victory Party may share some policy positions on refugees, the comparison is notably made on a general level and is not implying a direct alignment or endorsement.

These subtle variations within Turkish nationalism highlight the multifaceted nature of political ideologies and the influence of social, cultural, and external factors in shaping their contours.

The Influence of Ultra-Nationalism

In the profoundly nationalist state of Türkiye, Oğan, Ozdag, and Aksener, as former MHP politicians, tapped into the ultra-nationalist voter base by aligning with different parties and alliances. The occurrence of various shades of nationalism, encompassing conservative secularists and left-wing politicians, underscores the limited flexibility of candidates standing for elections. Oğan’s appeal during the first round can be attributed to voters who sought an alternative to the existing political blocs, indicating a more reactionary vote rather than an established support base.

From Division to Unity: Reimagining Nationalism in Türkiye

However, nationalism need not be inherently toxic or antagonistic towards marginalized peoples. It can unify people with good guidance, but there needs to be a fundamental shift in the type of nationalism promoted in Türkiye.

A reconfiguration of nationalism is urgently needed, where the focus shifts from fostering hostility towards marginalized communities to cultivating a sense of shared culture and collective economic prosperity. The next stage of this transformation would be the transition towards an open, inclusive form of nationalism that is not anti-Kurdish or against marginalized peoples. Instead, it should celebrate the rich tapestry of Turkish society, fostering unity, tolerance, and cooperation. This evolution of nationalism may be slow and face numerous challenges, but the result—an inclusive, tolerant, and united Türkiye—would undoubtedly be worth the struggle.

Nationalist views have significantly shaped Türkiye’s political landscape. The rising votes for nationalist parties, including Oğan’s alliance, suggest that nationalism will continue to shape the country’s politics in the coming years. By redefining and reframing nationalism to promote inclusivity, respect, and unity, Türkiye can realize the core ideals of nationalism while ensuring a brighter and more harmonious future for all its citizens.

Stakes are High: Türkiye’s Future Hangs in the Balance 

Türkiye, as the second-largest military power in NATO and a strategically located country bordering Iran, Iraq, and Syria, finds itself at a critical juncture. The Turkish election not only held immense significance for Türkiye but for the region’s dynamics and global politics. The implications of this election stretch beyond Türkiye’s borders, with the involvement of influential actors like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who has openly supported Erdoğan’s bid for victory. 

Hyperinflation and a struggling economy have marked Erdoğan’s first term as president. In this context, large sums of cash from Russia have made their way into Türkiye, enabling Erdoğan to distribute generous social security benefits and provide cheap natural gas to voters as an election tactic. This financial support, combined with populist strategies, has helped Erdoğan solidify his position and contributed to his electoral success.

Putin’s support for Erdoğan stems from a shared vision of challenging the U.S.-led liberal international order. As a like-minded leader, Erdoğan aligns with Putin’s objectives, making his continued rule desirable for the Russian president. Consequently, Putin will likely maintain financial and informational backing for Erdoğan, ensuring his continued influence. 

The Turkish election proved to be pivotal in shaping Türkiye’s course. The reimagining of nationalism, the influence of key actors like Putin, and the contrasting visions represented by Erdoğan and Kilicdaroglu will define Türkiye’s path forward. The choices that Turkish people made in this election will have profound implications, setting the stage for Türkiye’s future and shaping the region’s dynamics and global politics.

Edited by Ashley Renz

Sude Guvendik

Sude spent her formative years in Western Africa, primarily in Ghana and Turkey, before relocating to Vancouver to pursue her Bachelor's degree in International Relations, Legal Studies, and History at...