Istanbul, Turkey/Washington - Ahead of Turkey's presidential runoff election on Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main contender Kemal Kilicdaroglu are both eyeing voters who back the country's various nationalist parties.
Nationalist parties like Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Good Party (IYIP), Victory Party (ZP) and Great Unity Party (BBP) received more than 23% of the votes in the parliamentary election on May 14, which made Turkish nationalists "the winner of the election," according to some experts.
"Political parties and candidates that define themselves [as] nationalist achieved an outstanding number of votes that no one could foresee," Ismet Akca, a political scientist formerly with Istanbul's Yildiz Technical University, told VOA.
Kemal Can, a veteran journalist and commentator at digital media outlet Medyascope, does not find the increase in the nationalist votes significant, but thinks that the nationalist parties gained bargaining power.
"As a result of these elections, we can say that both the visibility and bargaining ability of nationalism increased rather than the numerical increase," Can told VOA.
On Monday, the nationalist ATA alliance's presidential candidate Sinan Ogan, who placed third in the first round of the presidential election May 14, announced his endorsement of Erdogan, who got 49.52% of the votes in the first round.
Ogan also highlighted that his candidacy made Turkish nationalists the key players in the election and explained why he is backing Erdogan as his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the People's Alliance hold the majority in the parliament.
Even though Ogan received 5.2% of the votes in the first round, Kemal Can thinks that Ogan will not be able to carry his support in its entirety to Erdogan.
"Ogan was presented as a candidate in front of a group of voters and [received] a reaction," Can told VOA.
"He did not collect these votes; they are not his own votes. They are the votes of an alliance and reactionary votes," Can added.
On Wednesday, Umit Ozdag, the head of the far-right Victory Party, the leading party in the ATA alliance, endorsed Erdogan's rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who received 44.88% of votes in the first round.
People talk under election banners of Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance's presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, Turkey, May 23, 2023.
Kilicdaroglu has toughened his tone before the second round of the election as he pledged to send Syrian refugees back and to end terrorism in his campaign posters. At the same time, Erdogan has repeatedly suggested links between him and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Kilicdaroglu has denied this allegation.
Ozdag and Kilicdaroglu also signed a seven-point protocol Wednesday on the principles of their cooperation. The protocol promises to deport all the refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey, within a year and to replace elected mayors with state-appointed trustees with court rulings in case of legal proof that shows their links with terrorism.
Akca thinks the protocol is a success for Ozdag, but it puts Kilicdaroglu at risk of not receiving the Kurdish votes as he got in the first round because of the trustees.
Since the 2019 local elections, at least 48 out of 65 municipalities won by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party have been run by government-appointed trustees over terrorism allegations.
Following Ogan and Ozdag's endorsements, the pro-Kurdish Green Left Party (YSP) on Thursday reiterated its support for opposition against Erdogan in the runoff without naming Kilicdaroglu. YSP endorsed Kilicdaroglu by name in the first round.
"Even though the party has declared its support for Kilicdaroglu, it remains a question how far it can mobilize its voters to go to the ballot box amid this radical nationalist frenzy," Akca told VOA.
Kemal Can said that during this year's campaign, the opposition asked the public if they wanted to see a change from the country's current direction. The government instead framed the question as who should decide if there will be change: the Kurds or the nationalists?
"We see that nationalists entered into a power play demanding the decision-making power in a reactionary way," Can said.
According to political scientist Akca, nationalists in Turkey see refugees and the Kurds as their main problems.
"Existing nationalism [in Turkey] has two main problems, and one is refugees because the nationalist movement has caught a streak over the refugee problem among the public. We see a nationalism based on xenophobia," Akca told VOA.
"The second is the Kurds. 'Let's not allow the Kurds and the political movement representing them to become the key party.' Sinan Ogan and the Victory Party voiced this as they were saying, 'Everyone will see who the key is,'" Akca added.
Akca views the two different endorsements by Ogan and Ozdag, the two main actors of the nationalist ATA alliance, as "a gamble on their political futures."
"Here, I find Umit Ozdağ, who has an organization like the Victory Party behind him, more advantageous than lone-wolf Sinan Ogan," Akca said.