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Secular candidate hopes to push Erdogan into Turkish presidential runoff

While some Turks see Erdogan as vulnerable, others only have hopes that his party can be denied a parliamentary majority.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gestures at his ruling AK Party's Istanbul congress, Turkey May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal - RC1E3428B110

Election fever is well and truly enveloping Turkey as an eclectic set of presidential contenders fight to woo voters in the run-up to the snap June 24 polls, amid a weakening economy, renewed conflict with Kurds and mounting tensions with the country’s Western allies. Despite a playing field stacked heavily in favor of incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there are emerging signs that it won’t be all plain sailing for Turkey’s strongman.

At a rally organized by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on Sunday, Erdogan unveiled his campaign manifesto in a speech peppered with references to Turkey’s Ottoman glory days and vows to catapult the country to ever loftier heights. He pledged to curb rising inflation, interest rates and the gaping current account deficit, making it sound as if Turkey’s economic woes were all the opposition’s making, even though the AKP has governed alone for the past 16 years

Erdogan cast himself, in turn, as the victim — of military coups and foreign powers — and as the ever-humble servant of the people. He went on to claim that he had “struggled day and night to establish justice,” even as tens of thousands of his opponents continue to rot in jail. They include Selahattin Demirtas, the charismatic former co-chair of Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish bloc, who is running for president from behind bars for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Erdogan blithely declared that once the executive presidential system, approved in a fraud-tainted referendum last year, kicks in, “the oligarchy of the bureaucrats will end, … democratic politics will be institutionalized, stability will become permanent.” While he nodded to women and to ethnic and religious minorities, Erdogan also vowed to keep up the fight against Kurdish militants at home and across the border in Syria. But for all his trademark oratory flair and chutzpah there was a whiff of staleness — critics label it desperation — to the whole affair. The lack of enthusiasm was palpable, prompting Erdogan to rebuke his audience. “Are you tired? Just stand up and you can seat yourselves again,” he grumbled.

Kemal Can, a leading expert on Turkish nationalist movements, said, “The government’s manifesto failed to set new goals and narratives and bored even [its supporters].” Its substance, Can said, betrayed Erdogan’s fears about the lack of support within his own party. In a marked shift, Erdogan steered away from any slurs against his opponents; his polarizing rants are apparently on hold. A newly magnanimous Erdogan even agreed to meet with the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Muharrem Ince, a former physics teacher who has some of Erdogan’s street-brawling braggadocio and common touch, has energized the CHP’s traditional, militantly pro-secular base. But in an interview with the BBC, Ince claimed that Turkey’s pious masses, whose support is deemed critical, were not alien to him. He was raised by observant parents who sent him to Quran lessons and made him participate in the ritual slaughter of sheep during the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice. “I am the revolutionary son of a conservative family,” he said. Ince insisted his first task upon becoming president would be to restore the rule of law. He claimed he would be a team player, “a conductor who leads the orchestra, not a solo violinist.” Ince also winked at Kurdish voters, another crucial demographic, pledging to fix the Kurdish problem through dialogue in parliament. This would require “courage, and a conscience,” he said. “Sometimes Turks will get angry, other times, Kurds, but it will be solved.” Ince also announced he would visit Demirtas in jail. But few will have heard. The heavily censored Turkish media is monopolized by Erdogan’s business associates and Ince has railed against the media blackout on him and fellow candidates.

Ramazan Tunc, a pro-HDP activist turned entrepreneur in the Kurds’ informal capital, Diyarbarkir, told Al-Monitor, “The Kurds are following Ince with great interest.” While they would “definitely vote for Demirtas,” if he fails to make it to a second round “many might vote for Ince, we can be pragmatists,” Tunc said.

Ince has in the past lashed out at Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels and vowed, much like Erdogan, to battle “terrorists.” Ince is no liberal; many would say quite the opposite. But unlike Erdogan, he doesn’t lump the HDP with the PKK. The 54-year-old Ince had already scored some brownie points with the Kurds when he opposed the CHP’s decision to back an AKP vote to lift parliamentary immunity for HDP lawmakers facing prosecution. The motion was approved, paving the way for the incarceration of Demirtas and fellow HDP lawmakers on a broad array of terror charges.

For all the euphoria Ince has generated, few believe he could beat Erdogan in an expected second round of balloting. Indeed, many foreign diplomats believe optimism in the anti-Erdogan camp is misplaced. "People who think these elections are the most important in modern Turkish history are self-delusional — as if democracy, like Lazarus, will rise from the dead," said one. Even so, Erdogan’s victory may well prove Pyrrhic, said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. Many say Turkey’s ballooning economic problems, which Erdogan is seeking to mask through a barrage of populist measures, will only get worse. The emerging consensus is that the AKP will lose its majority in the parliamentary elections that will be held concurrently with the presidential ones. But for this to happen, the HDP would need to secure the requisite 10% of the national vote to win seats in the chamber. This, in turn, would require rigorous scrutiny by election observers in the mainly Kurdish southeast provinces, where electoral mischief is most commonly exercised. In the meantime, there are unconfirmed reports that Ali Babacan, a reform-minded former AKP economy minister with impeccable credentials, is organizing a new political movement that could potentially fracture the AKP. Aydintasbas told Al-Monitor: “For the first time, voters can imagine a future without Erdogan in power, if not today. Erdogan’s aura of invincibility has been shattered. This is a threshold moment.”

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