Turkey’s ultranationalist outsider basks in runoff fame

Sinan Oğan, a Turkish academic and presidential candidate of the ATA (Atatürk) nationalist alliance speaks to the press after a meeting with the leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, CHP, and presidential candidate, in Ankara, on April 12, 2023. Adem ALTAN / AFP

An also-ran who helped push Turkey to its first runoff election on May 28 is using his new-found fame to make ultranationalism mainstream and tease a second-round endorsement.

A dissident expelled from a far-right group, Sinan Oğan had spent most of his career on the periphery of Turkish politics before his unexpected score in Sunday’s presidential ballot thrust him into the limelight.

Oğan, 55, picked up 5 percent of the vote, denying conservative President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a first-round victory against secular challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who took 44.9 percent.

Oğan is believed to have taken votes away from Erdoğan, who fell less than 1 percentage point short of an outright win.

In an interview with AFP, Oğan said he would decide on his endorsement after talks with Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu — but also suggested he may not support either candidate.

‘Principles of Atatürk’

Oğan embodies the “Kemalist” principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a revered military commander who forged a secular Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

In that sense, he is different from Erdoğan and his Islamic-rooted party, although both are right wing.

This “commitment to the foundational principles of Atatürk created an appeal for those who have been opposing Erdoğan yet are not satisfied with Kılıçdaroğlu,” Kürşad Ertuğrul, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, told AFP.

Oğan described his supporters as “Turkish nationalists, Kemalists, young people, the masses who find us modern.”

These represent “the masses … who see us as more intellectual, the masses who are fed up with the old faces,” he said, depicting his ideology as an enlightened brand of nationalism.

His pledge to expel 3.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey back to their war-torn country appeals to anti-Erdoğan nationalist voters.

He also stresses security and fighting “terrorists,” a term used by Turkish politicians to designate pro-Kurdish groups accused of ties with an insurgency that has taken on the state since the 1980s.

“Structures that do not distance themselves from terrorist organizations should not be included in the government,” Oğan told AFP.

He was referring to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which backed Kılıçdaroğlu’s opposition alliance, and a far-right Kurdish group allied with Erdoğan.

Seeking concessions?

Oğan could theoretically prevent Erdoğan from extending his two-decade rule to 2028 if all of his supporters back Kılıçdaroğlu.

“The winning equation will not be a simple sum of Erdoğan’s votes plus those won by Oğan, since many Oğan voters are also calling for change,” Jay Truesdale of the risk advisory firm Veracity Worldwide told AFP.

But Oğan’s “anti-Kurdish nationalism … makes it very difficult for Kılıçdaroğlu to strike a deal,” predicted Turkish politics expert Ertuğrul.

And since Erdoğan almost won outright in the election, he may not need Oğan’s backing at all.

“Erdoğan … doesn’t need to make huge concessions to Oğan,” said Berk Esen, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Sabancı University, pointing to the president’s parliamentary majority in alliance with another far-right party.

Scuffles in parliament

A polyglot ultranationalist from a minority group, the paradoxical Oğan was born in 1967, the youngest child of a rural and ethnically Azerbaijani family.

He grew up in the eastern city of Iğdır, near the borders with Armenia and Iran, and once worked as a shepherd.

He received a doctorate in international relations and political science from the prestigious Moscow State University, is fluent in Russian and English and spent several years working in academia and think tanks.

Entering parliament in 2011 as an MP for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Oğan is no stranger to speaking his mind or standing his ground, once getting involved in a violent scuffle with Erdoğan’s  Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers in parliament.

“With God’s help, we are defending the rights of the Turkish people in parliament. The number of AKP dogs we face doesn’t matter,” he wrote on Twitter at the time.

The MHP ejected him in 2017 over his opposition to Erdoğan’s constitutional referendum of that year that abolished the post of prime minister and effectively allowed the president to rule by decree.

Oğan then became an independent.

© Agence France-Presse

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