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Race for the Turkish Presidency Promises Suspense

ANKARA, Jun 21 2014 (IPS) - The announcement this week of the personality chosen by Turkey’s opposition parties to run for the office of the President of the Republic has taken the majority of the Turks by surprise.

Following tight and discrete negotiations, the Republic People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) have appointed the 70-year-old former Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ehmeleddin Ihsanoglu, as their joint candidate for the country’s highest political office.

Ehmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Credit: www.kremlin.ru

Ehmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Credit: www.kremlin.ru

With 56 Muslim member states, the OIC is the largest international organisation after the United Nations. Its headquarters are in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

For the first time in the Turkish republic’s history, the presidential elections – which are scheduled for 10 August 2014, with a second ballot two weeks later in the event of a tie – will be held by direct popular vote, instead of traditional election by members of parliament.

The nomination of Ihsanoglu has finally endowed the opposition with a plausible representative to the contest. However, members of the CHP and MHP have not yet expressed enthusiasm for the choice, because Ihsanoglu’s doctrine seems to be incompatible with the parties’ historical role in local politics.

The emergence of Ihsanoglu as a challenger to their own candidate is also bad news for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had speculated that the march towards the presidential palace would have been uneventful.

The AKP had said a week earlier that the name of their nominee would be announced just before the July 3 deadline for candidate registrations. AKP’s leaders may now have to show their card earlier than they hoped.

“Political forces should not put pressure on religion. Similarly, pressure should not be put on politics through religion” – Ehmeleddin Ihsanoglu [presidential candidate for Turkey’s opposition parties], commenting on Turkey’s status as a secular state

The general public and observers, local as well as international, were until the beginning of this week convinced that current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be the man to seek and obtain the presidential position, against a cosmetic competitor from the opposition, running for the sake of democratic practices. IPS has leaned that such certainty is now being called into question.

The CHP is the party founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the Turkish Republic. Its followers are generally referred to as ‘Kemalists’ and aspire to a socialist, pro-western society. Ataturk is widely revered to the present day as the father of the nation.

The MHP was founded in 1965 on an ultra-nationalist and pan-Turkish doctrine, which contemplates the unification of all Turkic ethnic groups in the Caucasus and the Middle East under Ankara’s rule. It has a record of anti-leftist and anti-Kurdish activities.

Both parties support the secular state, as designed by Ataturk and his successors, although in certain periods MHP has had radical Islamists amongst its members and MPs. Ultra-nationalism and activist Islam have often coexisted in the Turkish political universe.

This is where the controversy with Ihsanoglu’s appointment begins.

Ihsanoglu’s appointment in 2003 as Secretary-General of OIC was proposed and sponsored by Erdogan’s government.  In his ten-year tenure as the organisation’s head, he has cultivated an image of a discrete, but committed, Islamist whose vision of Turkey’s future as a secular society is unknown.

In reality, most CHP voters had never heard of Ihsanoglu until this week. Those who did believe he belongs to those among the AKP followers who would like to progressively erase Ataturk’s memory from public life.

Although his manners and interpersonal skills project him as a smooth transnational diplomat with a broad world-view, his persistent lobbying for a decade of U.S. and European governments to pass legislation that would limit freedom of expression by their respective citizens in issues relating to Muslim immigrants, on the grounds of fighting ‘Islamophobia’, has made an increasing number of CHP cadres reluctant to welcome his nomination.

In a meeting with CHP executives on June 18, the party’s former chairman, Deniz Baikal, expressed his reservations on the rationality of the decision, but asked them to support any presidential candidate that the current leadership of CHP would confirm.

In an attempt to reassure his critics, in an interview with the daily Cumhurriyet on June 18, Ihsanoglu said that “Ataturk has a special place in the hearts of the Turkish nation” but that he “should neither be consecrated nor rejected.”

Commenting on Turkey’s status as a secular state, he stressed that “political forces should not put pressure on religion. Similarly, pressure should not be put on politics through religion.”

In past presidential elections, the CHP and the MHP have always presented separate candidates. In the municipal elections of March 2014 they changed their electoral strategy and presented a single candidate in Ankara. The experiment was positive, with their common representative losing the contest by only a few dozen votes.

This strategy may be more rewarding in the presidential elections. Taking as a basis the national results of March, an AKP candidate is likely to receive 43 to 44 percent of the total votes in the first round, while the CHP/MHP joint ticket is likely to secure 44 to 45 percent. The winner, however, needs 50 percent plus one vote in order to claim victory.

With the two pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy (BDP) and People’s Democratic (HDP) parties also planning to present a common candidate, it is unlikely that a winner will be proclaimed after the first round. The BDP and the HDP received an aggregate of 6.28 percent of the votes in the March elections. A merger of the two formations is likely to occur later in June.

This factor confers upon the pro-Kurdish parties the power of king-makers in the second round of the elections. The AKP has understood this for some time and has tried to lure Kurdish voters through a process of political resolution of the 30-year-long armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the state. No tangible results have been obtained so far, however.

The BDP and the HDP are aware of their bargaining weight ahead of the elections and will try to extract a maximum of concessions from AKP and CHP/MHP. These include, but are not limited to civic freedoms for the Kurds, equal citizen rights with those enjoyed by the Turks, autonomous-region status for the south east of Turkey, amnesty for PKK fighters who live in exile, and freeing PKK’s founder Abdullah Ocalan, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment and is kept in solitary confinement on Imrali island.

CHP and MHP leaders have already shown moderate support for the reconciliation process between PKK and the state, but they will have a hard time to persuade their respective members on Kurdish autonomy and Ocalan’s future status.

Still, the direction and eventual outcome of the August elections lies on one key factor only: who will be the AKP candidate?

If Erdogan puts his name forward, the game is over for all other aspirants to the throne, according to the most seasoned local analysts. The Prime Minister’s personality attracts followers by the millions, in spite of the flawed policies of his government and corruption allegations about his close entourage since December last year.

But Erdogan, who has so far not commented on Ihsanoglu’s nomination, seems to be prudently weighing all the implications of his candidacy. These are directly related to his political future and to the future of his party.

If he is elected president of his country, he will have to step down from the chair of AKP and also leave the Prime Minister’s job to someone else. Under the current Constitution, the Prime Minister is the head of the executive, while the president’s role is ceremonial.

Erdogan’s goal is to vest the presidency with full executive powers. This would require a new or revised Constitution, the process towards which will take time and face strong resistance from the other parties and even from certain MPs of AKP.

The possibility of a presidential, rather than parliamentary, regime is also likely to discourage other AKP leaders from accepting the role of prime minister, because it will consist of merely executing decisions made by Erdogan.

In the event that Erdogan announces his intention to run for president, the forthcoming elections will be no longer a contest between two men, but a vote for choosing between regime change and status quo.

Turkish media close to Hizmet, an Islamist movement formerly supporting AKP but critical of the party’s leadership since the end of 2013, have also expressed support for Ihsanoglu. The number of voters loyal to Hizmet is unknown, but estimates evaluate their influence to be 3-8 percent of the total. They come from the educated middle class, including judges and civil servants.

The CHP/MHP leadership is speculating on Erdogan’s participation. If the majority of citizens remain attached to the parliamentary regime and to the separation of powers, Ihsanoglu seems to have the right profile to represent them.

Moreover, he reassures the Islamist part of the electorate, he is not an immediate threat to the secularists, and he has the know-how and network of powerful personalities around the world to restore Turkey’s image as a balanced and neutral regional power.

While still the OIC Secretary-General, Ihsanoglu fell apart with Erdogan, with the latter and his inner circle in the government accusing the organisation as ‘incompetent’ and with a Turkish minister asking for Ihsanoglu’s resignation from the OIC.

The dispute was over OIC’s silence in respect to Egypt’s July 3, 2013 ‘revolution’ which removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

These abilities confirm Ihsanoglu as a °politically correct° future president for Washington and Riyadh, which have been increasingly concerned with Turkey’s recent foreign policy in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

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