Erdogan's challengers have differing objectives

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ISTANBUL
Published 04.07.2014 23:44
Erdogan's challengers have differing objectives

While PM Erdogan is seen as the favorite to become the next president, his challengers seem more focused on proving a point

Turkey's long-awaited presidential election campaign is underway and three candidates have declared their intention to become the first Turkish president elected by popular vote. The main political parties have selected their nominees, and with Thursday as the final day for candidates to be submitted, the election has become a three-man race.

The two major opposition parties - the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) - were the first to name their candidate last week. The secularist CHP and nationalist MHP agreed to pick the former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, 71, as their joint candidate.

On Tuesday Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 60, declared his candidacy, although his nomination by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was seen as a near-certainty.

The third candidate is, 41-year old Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). He was elected to the Grand National Assembly, Turkey's legislative body, in 2007 but was sentenced to ten months imprisonment three years later for alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The sentence was deferred due to his parliamentary immunity.

The Peoples' Democracy Party which was established last year by the caucus of the BDP with the aim of widening the latter's relatively narrow Kurdish base in eastern Turkey, nominated Demirtaş as their presidential candidate. He is one of the leading figures of pro-Kurdish politics in Turkey.

Turkish citizens go to the polls on August 10 to vote for the 12th president of the Republic. It will be the first time voters have directly elected a president, as the office was previously elected by assembly lawmakers.

A candidate needs more than 50 percent of the vote to be elected in the first round. If none of the candidates receives this percentage, a second round on August 24 will take place between the two most popular candidates.

Should he become president, Erdoğan is thought to envisage a presidency with greater powers, allowing him to take a more active role in politics.
The naming of İhsanoğlu as joint candidate for the CHP and the MHP is the opposition's tactic to attract conservative AK Party voters because of İhsanoğlu's Islamic-conservative background.

İhsanoğlu served as secretary-general of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation between 2005 and 2014, when his candidacy was supported by the AK Party government. An academic who has written several books on Ottoman and Islamic history, İhsanoğlu was born in Egypt to Turkish parents, graduated from Egypt's renowned Islamic Al-Azhar University and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years.

A fall out between the AK Party and İhsanoğlu became public after the Egyptian military coup in July last year, which the AK Party thought he did not criticize strongly enough. "Having İhsanoğlu as the candidate is based on attracting religious voters in Turkey,"

Mehmet Ali Kulat, owner of an Ankara-based polling company, told the Anadolu Agency. "A religious state leader is preferable for Turkish society to an important degree.

İhsanoğlu, in that sense, has a religious background but his name does not correspond to any group in Turkish society. "Our survey showed that some 30 percent of the CHP voters would not vote for him because they think that he does not represent them. The CHP isolated people from its base while trying to attract religious voters."

The AK Party under Erdoğan has a solid voter base, demonstrated by the party's success in the March 30 local elections when it took 46 percent of the national vote. The party's struggle with the Gülen Movement, led by U.S. based Fethullah Gülen, did not mean a serious decrease in votes in the March 30 elections.

While the CHP attracts votes from the western coastal region; the MHP from central Anatolia; and the BDP from the eastern and southeastern provinces; the AK Party under Erdoğan's leadership attracts votes from across the country while primarily appealing to the conservatives of central Anatolia.

The government's progress since 2013 in finding a solution to end the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party also gave it the upper hand in the local elections.

The Turkish government accuses the Hizmet movement, once an ally of the AK Party, of forming a shadow structure within the state and plotting to topple the government.

The group, allegedly run by Gülen, has been accused of conducting illegal wiretappings, including a phone conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal.

Tevfik Diker - a former True Path Party (DYP) lawmaker and columnist - said Hizmet also backs İhsanoğlu. "The parallel state is also backing İhsanoğlu," he said. "He is a 'project candidate' of anti-AK Party businessmen, media and others, contemplated to attract religious votes with the aim of blocking Erdoğan's presidency. He can also appeal to the AK Party base with a center-right background, the voters of DYP and ANAP [Homeland Party]."

Sources close to the BDP said the party sees the presidential poll as a test for the general election in 2015.

The party is not a serious challenger in the presidential run but wants to draw support from leftists and conservatives in the long-term as well as the Kurdish voters of the BDP as it aims to become a 'Turkey party.' BDP members see İhsanoğlu as a mirror image of Erdoğan, so he is not a real alternative for them. "He is more or less on the same line with Erdoğan," leading Kurdish politician Ertugrul Kurkcu said in June. "CHP voters, especially Alevis [a Muslim minority], are negative on İhsanoğlu, who has a conservative profile.

The leftist and Alevi voters are now in a quest for the right candidate, not to vote for someone who does not have any message on Alevi freedoms in Turkey," Ayhan Bilgen, Peoples' Democracy Party member and human rights activist, said. "Our campaign is for all circles exposed to discrimination, denial and for those who have concerns on polarization in Turkey. That is why Demirtaş is a name to who disappointed CHP
voters will tend to."

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