The June 16 selection of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as the joint presidential candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the two leading opposition parties in the Turkish parliament, has triggered heated debate around two issues: whether Ihsanoglu's selection is a signal that the opposition parties have conceded to Turkey’s growing Muslim identity and whether the parties seek to change the country’s south-looking focus on the Middle East.
Ihsanoglu, 70, was born and raised in Cairo. During his academic career, he focused on the development of the Islamic world in all its aspects, and in January 2005, he was elected secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah, despite Saudi Arabia openly lobbying against him. With 57 member countries, the OIC is the world's second largest international organization after the United Nations. Ihsanoglu held his position for nine years, until January of this year.
Ihsanoglu’s knowledge and experience are not, however, limited to the Muslim and Arab worlds. He assumed the OIC's top seat during the ongoing aftermath of al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attack on the United States that created worry around the globe and discussions on whether Islam promoted such violence and its (in)compatibility with the values of the Western world. The OIC's position on relations with the West was mixed, but Ihsanoglu arranged for Australia, Canada, the European Union, Great Britain and the United States to assign special representatives to the OIC for the first time in an attempt to try to bridge differences. Russia was also given observer status at the time.
The two opposition parties appear to have blindsided the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with their agreement to put forward Ihsanoglu as their candidate for the elections scheduled for Aug. 10. After all, when the Islamist AKP used its numbers in parliament to select Abdullah Gul to be president in 2007, many in the opposition hit the streets to protest against a first lady who covers her hair. When Gul was sworn into office, the pro-AKP media rejoiced that the country finally had a pious Muslim in Cankaya palace.
“The majority in the country is secular, conservative, center right and nationalist,” Huseyin Bagci, head of international relations department at the Middle East University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “In Ihsanoglu, the opposition reached the conclusion that they would not have a chance against [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in the upcoming elections for president if they presented a candidate from the center left. They reached a pragmatic conclusion in this.”
CHP Deputy Chairman Faruk Logoglu objects to the notion that the opposition chose Ihsanoglu because he is a practicing Muslim. “He may be a conservative man in his private life,” Logoglu told Al-Monitor. “We, however, chose him not for that, but because we believe he upholds the principles laid out in our constitution and respects secularism by all means.”
Without a doubt, Ihsanoglu’s in-depth knowledge of the Islamic and Arab worlds would be an asset for Turkey, especially at a time when al-Qaeda franchise groups and offshots are along its borders in Iraq and Syria, and sectarian warfare has been a reality in Iraq since the US occupation.
“The policy of the Republican People’s Party is clear,” Logoglu said. “We don’t want to intervene in conflicts between Arab nations or in a conflict inside an Arab country. [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu’s policies — especially toward Syria and Iraq — are not only criticized by us, but the Turkish people also feel uncomfortable with his approach. Ihsanoglu’s leadership could pose a balance to Davutoglu’s blind arrogance.”
Prime Minister Erdogan came close to declaring Ihsanoglu persona non grata in 2013 when he refused to condemn the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the first Muslim Brotherhood member elected president of Egypt, but it will be difficult for the AKP machine to challenge Ihsanoglu on the grounds of his religiosity and knowledge of the Middle East.
The Turkish presidency is primarily a ceremonial office, but Ihsanoglu still stands to offer a different approach than that during Gul's tenure. “After [Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005, the AKP government toned down its relationship with Syria due to international pressure,” Yasin Atlioglu, a Syria expert at Nigde University, told Al-Monitor. “Then-Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer chose, however, to follow through with a scheduled visit to Damascus despite US Ambassador Eric Edelman’s warning not to do so. But that visit succeeded in keeping the relationship with Syria manageable. After the 2011 crisis, Abdullah Gul could have taken a similar approach, but he instead chose inaction and left the initiative to the prime minister and the foreign minister.”
It is indeed critical that the president remain independent and keep an equidistance from all political parties. The word inside the Ankara beltway has for a long time been that Gul had warned Davutoglu since the beginning of the Syria crisis that Turkey should not in any way allow its borders with Syria to be infiltrated by radical extremists. Yet, the AKP government turned a blind eye for a long time, assuming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall in less than a year, and the extremists would return from whence they came. That calculation dramatically misfired, as one of the radical groups — the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — took 49 Turkish consulate members hostage on June 11 in Mosul while expanding operations into Iraq.
The opposition parties are adamant that Ihsanoglu is the right choice to lead the country at such a critical time, as radical religious and ethnical warfare creep closer. “There are about 48 days until the first round of elections, on Aug. 10,” Bagci noted. “Erdogan made his most critical mistake since coming to power in that he did not see the opposition coming up with someone like Ihsanoglu. His divisive and aggressive rhetoric won’t produce the expected outcome for him. Ihsanoglu will likely grab the attention of the people by his inclusive and more calm approach to issues.”
Although the president's ability to shape the country’s domestic and foreign policies is limited, as these are the government’s responsibility, a change in tone at the highest level of authority could impact current ways of politicking and policymaking. The people will decide in August. That said, if the AKP’s candidate suffers defeat at the ballot box, it will be the first major setback for the ruling party since it came to power. “In case the opposition’s candidate wins the election for the presidency, it will have a direct impact on the upcoming general election in 2015 and beyond,” Bagci said.