Turkey: The Opposition's Intriguing Presidential Candidate Choice

On August 10 Turks will for the first time have the opportunity to directly elect their president, a mostly ceremonial position (though one that has some notable hidden powers) that was previously earned through a parliamentary vote.

Perhaps it's an indication of what Turkish parties think of their voters or of their country's political system that up until earlier this week, none of them had declared who their candidate would be for an extremely significant election only a few weeks away. Although it is widely expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run as his party's candidate, the fact that he has yet to make it official only makes the situation odder.

On June 16, though, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (CHP) joined forces and announced a consensus candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and, until last year, someone considered to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Ekmeleddin who, you might ask? That's certainly the question many Turks asked when his candidacy was announced. A mild-mannered academic with an old world demeanor, İhsanoglu is far from a household name and has not had any previous experience with domestic Turkish politics. Still, the surprise choice is an intriguing one, a move that doesn't necessarily spell victory for the opposition, but that will certainly force Erdogan and his party to rethink their strategy and which tells an interesting story about the AKP's own evolution over the last decade.

In a column on the Al-Monitor website, analyst Kadri Gursel has a very good take on both the significance of the upcoming presidential election and why Ihsanoglu's candidacy was a clever move by the CHP and MHP. From his article:

Ihsanoglu’s nomination is significant because the vote in August will not be a genuine presidential election. The voters will in fact make a choice between Turkey’s incumbent parliamentarian system and the authoritarian, de facto presidential system that Erdogan dreams of. Ihsanoglu’s victory would mean a victory for the parliamentarian system, and Erdogan’s victory would mean a victory for a de facto presidential regime. Therefore, stopping Erdogan through Ihsanoglu would increase the chances of rehabilitating Turkey’s parliamentarian democracy.

Ihsanoglu’s nomination is a potential game changer because it offers an alternative to a critical segment of voters in the AKP base who are reluctant to back Erdogan for president but have felt they have no other alternative; now, this group could comfortably vote for a non-Islamist conservative such as Ihsanoglu.

The combined vote the CHP and MHP got in the latest local elections in March is equal to the AKP vote — about 43-44%. Based on these figures, the presidential winner will be decided by the difference between the vote Ihsanoglu manages to muster from the AKP base as well as smaller conservative and nationalist parties and the vote Erdogan will likely get from the Kurdish movement’s grassroots.

CHP Secretary-General Gursel Tekin told Al-Monitor that Ihsanoglu was the sole match for the ideal presidential profile that the party drew up on the basis of extensive consultations with civic groups, trade unions and intellectuals about the qualities of the next president.

In another good analysis, this one issue by the Washington, DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center, Halil Karaveli takes a look at why Ihsanoglu's nomination, despite being a clever one, might come up short:

By nominating İhsanoğlu, CHP and MHP gamble that Turkey’s electorate will support a candidate whose conservative credentials are impeccable but who at the same time is a moderate, non-political figure. While İhsanoğlu’s conservatism is expected to endear him to the AKP base, it is hoped that his moderation and the fact that he is not a politician with an agenda will make him an acceptable choice for the secular sections of the electorate who, more than anything else, want to make sure that Erdoğan–who has not yet declared his candidacy, but is expected to soon–doesn’t get elected. This, however, may ultimately prove to be too calculating.

First, İhsanoğlu may have a problem mobilizing the opposition’s base. He is not a widely known figure, nor does he speak to the values and ideals of the voter bloc he has been chosen to represent. Given his background and profile, he will have to make a significant effort to win over CHP voters, whose initial reactions to his announcement have been less than enthusiastic. Similarly, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation certainly does not come across as someone who would be able to, or at all inclined to, energize the Taksim/Gezi generation.

Regardless of how Ihsanoglu does at the ballot box (a major variable is if the Kurdish parties put forward a candidate of their own, a move which could end up splitting the vote and denying Erdogan of a first round election win and thus giving the CHP/MHP candidate more time to campaign), his candidacy is certainly fascinating in terms of what it says about the evolution of Turkey's political parties.

Ihsanoglu, in many ways, tells the story of the rise and fall of the AKP as a reform-minded moderately Islamic party and of its ambitious regional foreign policy. When the AKP in 2005 put the academic forward as a candidate to be the head of the OIC, he was playing in a part in the party's plan to increase Turkey's presence on the world stage and to reassert itself both in the Middle East and in the realm of Islamic politics.

By all accounts, Ihsanoglu did a fine job, reforming the OIC and giving it some new relevance, while also burnishing Ankara's image as a results-oriented force. But after the OIC head failed to denounce the ouster of Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi as a "coup," the AKP and the pro-government press quickly turned on him, despite the good work he had done in promoting the Turkish brand. It was an early taste of the kind of rancor the AKP and its supporters now regularly show those they oppose and of how damaging that attitude has become for Turkey's interests, both at home and abroad.

With Ihsanoglu's candidacy, the AKP and the opposition have actually reversed places. In Erdogan (if he runs), the AKP will put forward the most classically “Kemalist” of the presidential candidates: statist, paternalistic, conspiracy-minded and wary of west. Meanwhile, with Ihsanoglu, a moderate religious conservative with an internationalist perspective, the CHP and MHP have someone who, at least in tone, recalls the kinder, gentler AKP that first came onto the political scene some 12 years ago.

Turkey: The Opposition's Intriguing Presidential Candidate Choice

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