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Why Will the Victory Party Rise Despite Ümit Özdağ?

By Abdullah Esin, Mehmet Yaşar Altundağ*

The Story of the Victory Party’s Emergence

April and May of 2022 witnessed the release of videos on various social media platforms, notably Twitter, that would significantly impact the country’s agenda. These videos, each receiving over a million interactions, predominantly featured Afghan immigrants in Turkey taking random photos of women in the streets, shopping centers, beaches, or markets, and sharing these images on their social media accounts with music added in the background. The “discovery” of these videos created a bombshell effect in the public discourse. The outrage was not solely due to the presence of Afghan immigrants alongside Syrian refugees but was further fueled by the recklessness and harassment of “unruly young Afghan men,” intertwining issues of honor, security, women’s rights, the achievements of the Republic, and demographic futures, bringing a host of emotions, thoughts, and concerns to the forefront of politics and public attention.

The public’s anger and panic forced the then Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu to address immigration and refugee-related questions on TGRT News, attempting to clarify these issues for the public. His comments during the program, suggesting an exaggerated focus on Syrians and downplaying concerns, only intensified the backlash. His statements were criticized as being better left unsaid, reinforcing the perception that the government was deliberately ignoring its open-door policy and lack of a coherent approach to immigration.

The situation escalated with the swift spread of additional videos showing Afghan and Pakistani immigrants easily crossing borders, thrusting the immigration issue into the very heart of political discourse at the time. Until then, mainstream political parties had largely ignored the issue, failing to make it a central agenda item. This social and emotional rupture made discussing immigration policies less taboo, turning journalists, politicians, and experts who spoke out into prominent public figures.

Furthermore, the tone and language used to discuss immigration issues underwent rapid transformation, shifting the “Overton window” of political discourse. Proposals for the immediate and, if necessary, forceful repatriation of all immigrants gained mainstream media attention and became a widely endorsed policy. This period’s intense emotional upheaval also led to a weakening of moral objections against hate speech towards immigrants, normalizing derogatory expressions in various social contexts.

Out of this entire process, Ümit Özdağ and the Victory Party emerged as the most politically profitable entities. Unlike other opposition parties, Özdağ and his party did not appear to be jumping on the crisis bandwagon; instead, they had been long highlighting the issue alone, making their stance seem more sincere to the public. Özdağ successfully translated the accumulated anger and fatigue into political success, much like how anti-EU and anti-immigration politics in Europe were long ignored by mainstream parties before becoming critical issues following the 2008 economic crisis.

The structural conditions and Turkey-specific dynamics outlined here will continue to strengthen the trajectory of the Victory Party. Despite the party’s growth being somewhat limited by Ümit Özdağ’s own shortcomings, such as his inability to build a strong organizational structure, maintain a coherent anti-establishment stance, construct a superior narrative, embrace Turkism while navigating the complexities of Kurdish support, and develop a comprehensive economic policy, the broader political and social environment in Turkey and globally is conducive to the party’s further ascendance.

Despite these limitations, the changing dynamics of Turkish and global politics will continue to favor the Victory Party’s line and politics. The Victory Party, with its anti-immigrant stance, security-oriented posture, and anti-establishment politics, represents a unique combination of the rising security-focused and nativist far-right in global politics, tailored to Turkey’s specific conditions. The circumstances the world and Turkey have gone through in the last decade have paved the way for the formation and influential presence of a party like the Victory Party on the political scene. However, the rise of the Victory Party is not limited to this. The changing dynamics of Turkish and world politics will continue to bolster the Victory Party’s trajectory.

The Reality of Immigration

Thirteen years have passed since the onset of the Syrian civil war and the arrival of the first Syrian refugee caravans in Turkey. Over these years, Syrians have established their neighborhoods, opened businesses, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian-origin children have been born in Turkey. Syrian children have started attending primary and secondary schools, and the concept of second-generation immigrants has emerged. As the roots of Syrians in Turkey grow stronger, the movement against immigrants rises for two reasons.

First, the concern that “this visit has lasted too long” and “they might not leave after all” is intensifying. From this perspective, the inclination towards parties advocating a harsher and more radical immigration policy is increasing. On one hand, the public perception that Assad has won the war in Syria and political stability has been restored in the country is making the dissatisfaction towards Syrians more politically potent. The uncompromising stance of the Victory Party on immigration issues gains political weight as this fatigue, dissatisfaction, and the notion that “they might not leave after all” continue to amplify public discontent.

As Syrians’ thirteen-year history in Turkey progresses, their concentrated presence in cities and the increasing visibility of their lifestyles in public spaces lead to more encounters and interactions between Syrians and the local population. Interactions in hospitals, schools, parent meetings, constructions sites, and neighborhood disputes increasingly fuel resentment and dissatisfaction, occasionally escalating into societal conflicts, as seen in Ankara’s Altındağ. In the coming period, more Syrian children will attend school, Turkish-speaking Syrians will become more visible, Syrian families will root deeper in Turkey, and even become more active and organized through media, associations, or organizations. These natural encounters and mechanisms will provide opportunities for the Victory Party to expand its voter base and narrative strength.

Moreover, the increasing numbers and visibility of immigrants from Afghanistan, Africa, Central Asia, and other nations, becoming a political issue, are intensifying demographic concerns and fears regarding the country’s future. Considering the latest data from TÜİK showing a drop in the population growth rate to 0.11% in 2023, it’s evident that demographic sensitivities towards immigrants will escalate. Sentiments like “We are being invaded” and “We feel like strangers in our own country” are growing due to the government’s open-door policy aimed at cheap labor, amongst other reasons, and will intensify as Turkey’s population ages, urbanizes, and experiences a decline in childbirth rates due to the economic crisis.

Besides these short and medium-term processes, long-term mechanisms also indicate that human mobility towards Turkey will continue to increase. Sub-Saharan African countries are grappling with economic and political crises while facing serious drought and productivity threats due to global warming. Moreover, global warming is not only affecting the African continent; regions like Central and South Asia are also facing tangible effects of the climate crisis, suggesting that millions more immigrants will set out in the coming decades. These processes will increase the pressure on unconventional migration routes like Turkey, as countries with strong state capacities, like European nations, are turning countries like Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco into buffer zones for migrants, while securing their borders with expensive and detailed mechanisms like Frontex.

Thus, both the current situation with immigrants in Turkey and the future risks of immigration will bolster the Victory Party’s rhetorical strength. Already, Ümit Özdağ has been preparing his followers and the public for the issue of climate migrants, suggesting vigilance and preparedness. As the immigration issue becomes more critical, the Victory Party’s stance will gain strength.

The Economic Crisis

It wouldn’t be incorrect to describe the Victory Party as a party of those who feel lost and excluded by the system. For a young urban individual who votes for the Victory Party, this manifests as the realization that their university education hasn’t provided anything beyond a diploma, leading to a loss of hope for the future. For a middle-aged secular woman, it materializes as both a class descent due to the economic crisis and a shrinking of secular living spaces, leading her to blame the government and immigrants. From a middle-aged shopkeeper disturbed by the increasing presence of immigrants in their neighborhood to a worker fighting against immigrant labor in their workplace, and to young people feeling unguarded and excluded by the system, the Victory Party is rising as a reactionary movement.

Hence, as the economy worsens, the crisis deepens, the public’s purchasing power diminishes, the post-2023 elections distrust in mainstream opposition increases, and as immigrants are increasingly seen as part of the cause for rising living costs, the anticipated stricter austerity measures post-local elections will likely benefit the Victory Party.

The Clash of Nationalist-Transnational Visions

The continuity and stability provided by the AK Party’s twenty-two years of uninterrupted rule, along with the power vacuum in North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, allowed Turkey to adopt a more active and interventionist foreign policy. With its increased economic, military, and cultural power, Turkey began focusing more on transnational projects and allocating a significant portion of its resources to foreign policy objectives, adopting a sort of sub-imperial foreign policy as a normal and integral aspect of Turkey’s regime identity. Throughout the AK Party’s tenure, this foreign policy vision was actively pursued by various institutions.

For instance, TİKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) conducts extensive infrastructure projects in the Balkans, North Africa, and Central Asia. Maarif Foundation strives to incorporate schools in countries where the Gülen movement was previously active, working to enhance Turkey’s soft power abroad through educational activities. YTB targets the Turkish diaspora in Europe, aiming to expand Turkey’s influence in foreign policy. These policies, aimed at increasing Turkey’s foreign policy footprint, also prompt questions among those who feel left behind domestically about why these resources aren’t being spent within Turkey’s own borders for the benefit of its citizens.

In this context, it’s essential to understand the Victory Party’s core spirit and political line as genuinely local and nationalist, prioritizing the allocation of national resources within Turkey’s borders for the well-being of its citizens over foreign expenditures. The preference for using billions to build hospitals, schools, infrastructure facilities, and cultural activities abroad rather than investing those resources in Turkey, enhancing the welfare of Turkish citizens, forms the implicit foundational premise for the Victory Party and its supporters.

As the gap between Turkey’s geopolitical and foreign policy ambitions and the reality of its citizens’ quality of life widens, this tension increases. However, Turkey’s ingrained desire to be a regional power and its sub-imperial ambitions suggest that such comprehensive use of soft and hard power in foreign policy will continue, paralleling the centuries-old political debates in the US between isolationist tendencies and interventionist factions. Like the US, Turkey is also witnessing a rising objection from the Victory Party’s electorate and ideology against spending on foreign scholarships, construction projects in various Central Asian countries, and investment funds for weaker nations.

The Global Rise of the Far-Right

From Argentina to Hungary, and from Russia to Hungary, representatives of neo-conservative and security-focused politics are in power across various regions and countries of the world. More importantly, from the US to the UK, France to South Korea, the new right is shaping the dominant ideological framework and discourse globally. Even if not in power, the new conservatism is dictating the limits and narratives of politics, from security policies and border protections to defining family and societal values, and even claiming to be the true representatives of labor and the working class by critiquing the new left as bohemian and identity-focused.

The left-wing winds of the 60s and 70s that convinced liberals and conservatives alike of the social state, today’s global right-wing influence is increasing its dominance in security policies, border control, societal values, and even positioning itself as the true voice of workers against an identity-focused and bohemian new left. The increasing migration movements since the 90s due to conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, coupled with globalization’s impact on the welfare of industrialized Western states and growing cultural clashes, fuel the dynamism of the new right. The Victory Party, from its anti-immigrant stance and opposition to identity politics of the new left, security policies, and embrace of secularism and nationalism, is riding the winds of this global right-wing trend.

To fully understand how the global and national trends are amplifying the Victory Party, it’s essential to examine the party’s increasing appeal among the youth in detail. According to research by KONDA and GoFor, 5.1% of the 18-30 age group supports the Victory Party. Considering that 3.4% of young people voted for the Victory Party in the May 14th elections, it’s evident that the party has significantly increased its vote share since the election. Moreover, the political statements and promises of Özdağ and the Victory Party are perceived as highly sincere by the youth, ranking as the third most genuine party in the survey.

Among nationalist parties, the Victory Party stands out as the one most excluded from tangible gains. While MHP offers its supporters and youth comfort in government positions, interior ministry roles, or security staff positions, İYİ Party’s young supporters find resources through CHP municipality subsidiaries and contracts. MHP utilizes state resources, whereas İYİ Party can provide support to its followers through municipal rent, given its alliances. The Victory Party, on the other hand, represents young people who feel entirely excluded from these benefits, believing they have been abandoned by the system and losing hope for the future.

As the number of young people feeling marginalized rapidly increases, the Victory Party, particularly among young men, emerges as a beacon of hope. According to the same survey, while 2% of young women support the Victory Party, this figure jumps to 8% among young men. This gender disparity in support for the Victory Party aligns with global trends, notably observed in South Korea, where young men are increasingly gravitating towards right-wing politics. The 2021 local elections in Seoul, South Korea, saw 72% of men in their twenties voting for the conservative candidate, a higher percentage than men over 60 (70%). The swift conservative shift among young South Korean men is attributed to the rise of feminism among South Korean women, perceived loss of privilege by young men, and the rising unemployment and futurelessness among young males.

In Turkey, young men are struggling to adapt to changing gender relations in a society that is rapidly urbanizing, becoming more educated, and secularizing. They see returning to family values and conservative norms as a means of protection against the uncertainties in the job market and societal changes. Additionally, the worsening living conditions and precarious work environments are increasing the pressure on young men to be self-sufficient, pushing them towards the Victory Party as a systemic alternative that promises to restore traditional dynamics and act as their voice. As societal dissolution and a sense of a bleak future grow, radical parties rise as a more potent alternative.

The Disintegration of Mainstream Politics

The declining vote shares of AK Party and CHP, considered mainstream political parties in Turkey, are fueling arguments about the dissolution of mainstream politics. The rise of radical right parties like Yeniden Refah and HÜDA-PAR, against the backdrop of decreasing support for CHP, contrasts with the emergence of left/socialist parties like TİP. İYİ Party’s attempt to position itself as a more centrist force within the nationalist spectrum has faltered due to its alliance strategy leading up to the May 2023 elections and its subsequent institutional breakdown and inability to define its political stance clearly.

The decline or mainstream parties opens the door for radical political parties that amalgamate opposition and government parties under the narrative of “regime parties,” stepping outside institutional politics. The inability of mainstream parties to solve economic, educational, security, and foreign policy issues, or even worsening these problems, particularly alienates young voters and pushes them towards unconventional options. The Victory Party, by offering radical and novel solutions to unresolved issues, is effectively moving radical solutions to the center of political discourse.

The Institutional Breakdown of İYİ Party

The emergence and rise of Ümit Özdağ and the Victory Party from within İYİ Party, targeting a similar voter base, naturally positions the two parties as competitors. The Victory Party’s success in articulating immigration concerns and becoming a decisive factor in the presidential elections, despite not leading in vote share, has positioned it ahead of İYİ Party in terms of political influence.

Post-May elections, İYİ Party’s departure from the Nation Alliance, its embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric, distance from the Kurdish movement, and its portrayal of CHP as synonymous with terrorism, have effectively shifted the narrative leadership on these issues to the Victory Party. The upcoming local elections, particularly the vote dynamics between İYİ Party candidate Buğra Kavuncu and Victory Party candidate Azmi Karamahmutoğlu in Istanbul, will be decisive in the competition between these two parties.

A Possible Reconciliation Process and Constitutional Debates

The public discussion around a potential new reconciliation process between the DEM Party and AK Party post-election and the political concessions or debates during the new constitutional process could further unify and radicalize the secular nationalist base towards the Victory Party. The possibility of a new opening process and debates over laicité or granting “equal citizenship rights” to Kurds during constitutional discussions could drive support from the nationalist base to the Victory Party, emphasizing the protection of the secular Republic and preventing the strengthening of the Kurdish political movement.

Why Is Ümit Özdağ a Hurdle for the Victory Party?

While the structural and Turkey-specific dynamics analyzed above will continue to expand a political formation aligned with the Victory Party’s ideology, the party’s full potential is somewhat hampered by Ümit Özdağ’s personal shortcomings.

Özdağ’s Lack of Organizational Skills

Beginning his political career in MHP before playing a significant role in the establishment of İYİ Party and later departing due to intense conflicts with İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener to form his party, Özdağ is known for his oratory skills, effective media use, and knowledge rather than his ability to gather and retain people around him. Described by those who know him as “irritable, stubborn, and egotistical,” Özdağ often loses the individuals he manages to gather around him.

His aggressive, ego-centric political style, which has brought the Victory Party to a certain point, is not enough to carry political movements beyond a certain threshold, reach broader social bases, and create a stronger sense of trust among voters. Successful political movements and parties usually have a strong team walking alongside the leader and a well-organized structure penetrating various societal segments.

In this aspect, Özdağ has not yet managed to transcend the image of a political project and movement centered around a single individual for the Victory Party. There’s a notable absence of prominent figures within the party aside from Özdağ. This results in a lack of strong voices capable of articulating positions on diplomacy, geopolitics, economy, agriculture, or social policies, further compounded by various internal tumults from founding member resignations to local leader resignations and intra-party disputes. The party’s rapid growth among the youth, while struggling to reach adults and middle-aged demographics, can be attributed to these challenges.

Özdağ’s Incomplete Anti-Establishment Politics

Coming from a background where his father was a high-ranking and influential military officer and he himself spent many years closely connected with security academies, law enforcement intelligence, and the Ministry of Interior, teaching courses and engaging with security bureaucracy, Özdağ’s stance on state, national security, and national interests is somewhat traditional and establishment-aligned.

While Özdağ uses his academic knowledge, experience, and command of security matters as an advantage, his background and posture prevent him from fully embracing an anti-establishment stance, especially in areas that don’t align with “state interests.” He doesn’t criticize the government’s foreign policy weaknesses as sharply as its immigration policies. In areas considered “state and nation interests,” Özdağ either remains silent or provides implicit support to the government.

As analyzed earlier, the critique and dissatisfaction of groups feeling left behind by a Turkey embroiled in neo-imperial ambitions, expending its resources abroad, emphasize the need for a more isolationist and local approach, which Özdağ doesn’t fully exploit due to his militarist and grandiose vision of Turkey. This limits the Victory Party’s ability to tap into isolationist and localist tendencies effectively.

Özdağ’s Lack of a Superior Narrative

Although Özdağ successfully owns the anti-immigrant political space by highlighting the excessive numbers of immigrants, the government’s policies, and open-border approaches, he falls short in constructing a higher narrative explaining why the immigration issue is part of a larger problem. While attempting to frame the “invasion” narrative as an overarching story, its abstract nature detached from everyday societal issues diminishes its effectiveness.

In contrast, successful anti-establishment and far-right politics, such as Portugal’s Chega Party led by André Ventura, have managed to build a superior narrative encompassing societal decay, security, and social welfare mechanisms, gaining significant traction. Ventura initially gained attention by targeting the Roma community, accusing them of criminality and social system abuse, which, despite criticism and penalties, helped him gain media attention and leverage social media effectively. Expanding his political focus to include security, societal decay, and social welfare critiques, Ventura managed to bring diverse groups under Chega’s banner, engaging in street politics and forming international alliances, notably with Spain’s VOX party.

Özdağ’s failure to establish a higher narrative, his struggle with organizational growth, and his lack of international alliances and personal networks limit the Victory Party’s potential. Additionally, his inability to present a cohesive, logical, and easily understandable economic program amid economic crisis, political uncertainty, and unemployment in Turkey undermines the party’s persuasiveness and governance credibility among new voters.

Özdağ’s Hidden Agenda of Turkism

While anti-immigration is the central theme of the Victory Party, its ideological core and prevailing discourse are shaped by Turkism. If placed on an ideological spectrum, Özdağ’s Turkism, relying more on ethnic symbols, security rhetoric, historical figures, and immutable red lines, prevents the party from attracting a wider audience beyond those already sympathetic to its anti-immigration stance. Despite Özdağ’s attempts to soften and normalize his stance by aligning it with Atatürk nationalism and Atatürkist lines, actions like commemorating Talat Pasha, embracing the idea of Turan, and even expressing loyalty to Turkish nationalism and the 1924 Constitution alienate even average Turkish nationalists.

Additionally, Özdağ’s Turkism, central to the party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, creates barriers. For instance, his recognition of a Turkmen immigrant merchant in Kilis as “one of us” who can stay demonstrates the policy’s inherent ethnic bias, which aligns with existing laws favoring Turkic-origin immigrants. This approach to immigration, distinguishing between local citizens and immigrants based on an ethnocentric policy rather than a universal anti-immigrant stance, diminishes the sincerity of Özdağ’s anti-immigrant politics, makes him susceptible to accusations of racism, and ultimately limits the Victory Party’s potential.

Exclusion of Kurds from Anti-Immigrant Politics

Research indicates that anti-immigrant sentiment is also high among Kurds. Therefore, Özdağ’s Turkism, occasionally veering into Kurdish antagonism, prevents the Victory Party, which is fundamentally anti-immigrant, from garnering support among Kurds. His political stance and language blur the lines between opposition to Kurdish politics and the public expression of Kurdish identity.

Özdağ’s misinterpretations of Kurdish-language election songs as “terrorist music,” along with his declarations of loyalty to Turkish nationalism and the 1924 Constitution, suggest an approach that almost denies Kurdish identity, blocking the party from gaining significant sympathy among Kurds. Instead, Özdağ could have surrounded himself with anti-immigrant Kurdish politicians at the level of vice-presidents and strong local leaders, potentially extending the party’s reach to Kurds concerned about unemployment, security, and daily tensions caused by diverse identities. However, Özdağ’s choice to emphasize nationalist rhetoric, such as Hatay being a “four thousand-year-old Turkish homeland,” and his inability to engage with the Kurdish region beyond Gaziantep, closes off a significant avenue for the Victory Party’s expansion.

As the Center Collapses, the Extremes Rise

The decline of mainstream political parties’ vote shares and their failure to address economic, political, and social challenges pave the way for the rise of radical political parties. This trend, initially observed in the 2023 May elections, is expected to continue in the 2024 local elections. While left-wing parties have not made a significant breakthrough, Yeniden Refah and the Victory Party have become the most talked-about parties of these elections. The rise of these parties is fueled by successful political rhetoric and campaigns, as well as Turkey’s growing nationalist and right-wing political climate. The post-local election rise of right-wing radical parties in Turkey will require a detailed examination of its economic, political, and social dimensions.

*Abdulah Esin is Public Policy and Government Affairs consultant.

*Mehmey Yasar Altundag is a research assistant at at Sciences Po, Paris.

This article originally was published in Birikim Magazine in Turkish and translated into English by Politurco.

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