Presidential Candidates Vying For Soul and Future of Turkey

As soon as main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) officially announced its candidate for June 24 presidential elections on Friday, a cut-throat race for the soul and future of Turkey is in full swing, with candidates offering different visions for a brighter future for their country.

No television channel aired CHP’s presentation of Muharrem Ince as its candidate, an indication about the government’s mastery and control of mainstream media. This pushes opposition parties to use social media more effectively to reach people and to work around the systematic blackout by mainstream media

Ince who has a rural upbringing and a modest family background quickly asserted himself as a figure to conjure with. His thrust to presidential race brought the CHP choice into sharper public focus and led to some swirling questions over his ability for being up to a formidable task — standing against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who won countless elections since 2002.

Ince, a former teacher and school principal, started his political career in the mid-1990s. He was elected a lawmaker from CHP in 2002 for the first time. He has served in Parliament since then and captured national attention, on numerous occasions, with his combative style, involvement in recriminations and war of words with ruling party politicians during sessions.

But at first, many observers and people had initial doubts over Ince.

Since indications and looming signs suggest a hard landing for the Turkish economy in a new election season, the opposition’s candidate, someone whose implacable secular worldview made him a regular target of the pro-government media, is believed to offer a golden chance to an embattled president to portray the presidential contest as an existential display of a culture war along us-and-them binary opposition, rather than to deal with the burning issues of bread and butter.

This presidential election is different than from the previous one given a shift to the executive presidency after a constitutional amendment was approved by the Turkish people in a controversial referendum last year. It is a high-stakes contest, a make-or-break moment for the incumbent president whose political skin would be on the line of choking bloc if he loses the battle of his life. This last point is not a mere speculation. The portrayal of the election in most existential terms unmasks the prevalent somber mood among pro-Erdogan writers and journalists.

Hilal Kaplan, one of the leading figures affiliated closely with Erdogan’s inner circle, warned that if the AKP loses parliamentary elections, the path to the prosecution of the president and other senior politicians would be opened. Having their very own political future at stake, President and his ruling party sees the June 24 elections from his perspective as a battle for survival.

A seasoned observer would expect a campaign around most pressing economic issues at a time when the Turkish currency tumbles to record lows against dollar and euro, a soaring inflation tests the mettle of the most hardened decision makers and a ballooning current account deficit with mountains of debt of the corporate business.

Yet, it would be unsurprising if Erdogan and his team divert attention from compelling economic problems to cultural matters and identity politics by depicting the CHP candidate as someone with a holy mission to undo Erdogan-era reforms that lifted poor pious social classes from their ghettos and elevated them to a certain level of socio-political and economic status.

A photo featuring Ince drinking beer in a beach during Ramadan is now circulating in the media. Aware of the public impression of him, the first thing Ince did was to share photos of his parents — a modest, headscarf-wearing mother and an ordinary father who represent the common Turkish family in Anatolia. The message was clear. Ince said he was a son of a lower class family, rejecting AKP depiction of him as an affluent, ultra-secular figure. 

On Friday, he visited the tomb of an Islamic sage and saint, Haci Bayram Veli who lived in the 14th and 15th century and gave his name to a mosque in downtown Ankara. The place is a regular site of visits by politicians and celebrities.

Religion still lies at the heart of Turkey’s political world. Regardless of an individual’s personal relation to it, every man of high public regard and importance needs to display a certain degree of respect for religion. Secular CHP politicians are no exception. Former CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal also made his memorable comeback in the early 2000s by visiting Haci Bayram Mosque in a bid to show people that he and his party changed. He aimed to broaden the social reach of his party, which is mostly associated with urban, educated and secular quarters of the society if it seeks to claim power. And without an overture or an effort to reach the center with an appeal to the majority of the society, any attempt is doomed to fail from the very beginning.

Ince’s rural background and his ability to reach ordinary folk ease his appeal to broad segments of society. But it remains to be seen to what extent he would translate such talent into a real victory in the elections.

He vowed to end corruption, reinvigorate the flagging economy and restore the social peace destroyed in the aftermath of the attempted coup in 2016.

Earlier this year, Ince challenged CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the party leadership in a party congress. He even accused of Kilicdaroglu of being a dictator within the party and blamed him for a string of electoral debacles. In the end, he narrowly lost the intra-party tussle for leadership in February.

His nomination suggests that the old power struggle between two figures was settled in a civilized matter after Kilicdaroglu relinquished his right to announce his own candidacy as expected.

Apart from CHP-AKP rivalry, the thrust of Meral Aksener, chairwoman of a splintered nationalist Good Party, onto political stage electrified recently dull Turkish politics dominated by Erdogan.

The electoral alliance of four parties, CHP, Good Party, Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and Democrat Party (DP) appeared to spook ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which already forged its own alliance with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The parliamentary elections will take place between two major alliance blocs. The four parties aim to allow smaller ones to pass the country’s notorious 10 percent electoral threshold to be able to enter Parliament.

If they succeed it, it will mean lesser seats for ruling AKP. It would even cause its parliamentary majority.

SP leader Temel Karamollaoglu is another rising political figure. His Islamist party poses a genuine threat to AKP given signs of growing disillusionment of AKP leadership among its core constituency. The rush of secular figures to offer signatures to enable Karamollaoglu for his nomination in presidential contest reveals how anti-Erdogan sentiment cuts across the lines of ideological and social belonging.

The campaign, however, takes place under the state of emergency with extreme limitations for the opposition. Selahattin Demirtas, former co-chair of pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) now runs his campaign from a prison cell after his party proposed him as its presidential candidate.

In a written interview with journalist Fatih Portakal, Demirtas laid out his vision for Turkey, pledging to bring democracy back to the country. He has remained imprisoned since late 2016 over terrorism-related charges.

The “Millet” (Nation) alliance between four parties in parliamentary elections excluded HDP. Whether it could pass the threshold, as it did in 2015 remains to be seen. More than a dozen of its lawmakers and thousands of its party members are currently in jail.

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