Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, finally has a challenger in August’s presidential elections. The main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP), just announced an agreement to nominate the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, as their joint presidential candidate.
İhsanoğlu recently completed two terms as Secretary General of OIC. He was previously put forward as a candidate for this position by the AKP in 2004 and became the first Turkish citizen elected to serve as Secretary General of the organization established in 1969. Prior to his election, OIC secretary generals were simply appointed by the membership. At the OIC, he left behind a legacy of advocacy for greater democracy, human rights, and women’s participation in public space.
The opposition hopes Ihsanoğlu’s conservative credentials and status as an accomplished scholar of Islam will draw voters alienated from AKP, while winning liberal hearts and minds with his commitment to secularism and pluralist democracy. In addition, Ihsanoğlu is well respected in the
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Arab and Muslim world and speaks fluent Arabic, as he was born and raised in Cairo to Turkish parents.
What are Ihsanoğlu’s chances of getting elected? The short answer is slim but his candidacy will undoubtedly alter the dynamics of the presidential elections.
For the first time in the history of Turkish democracy, voters will go to the ballot box in August to directly elect a president. If no candidate receives over 50 percent of votes, there will be a runoff election between the top two contenders, in which the candidate who receives a plurality of votes, will become the first elected president of Turkey and serve a term of five years.
Traditionally, former presidents were elected by the Turkish parliament and performed ceremonial duties with some limited, but important executive powers. These powers included: the signing of new legislation into law, appointing members to state bodies such as the Higher Education Board, and approving appointments of top bureaucratic positions. Ihsanoğlu is likely to be a candidate content with such a presidential profile.
In contrast, Erdoğan has made it quite clear that he wants a presidency with much stronger executive powers and a weakened prime minister, somewhat similar to the system in Russia. After a landslide victory at the national elections in 2011, Erdoğan announced his preference for Parliament to adopt a new constitution with a stronger presidency. Erdoğan failed to muster the votes necessary to get a new constitution through the parliament due to resistance from within his own political party and the opposition. Adverse publicity following last summer’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and corruption scandal allegations in December were additional factors complicating the exercise.
Nevertheless, the AKP’s success in securing 46 percent of votes during the March 2014 mayoral elections, 15 points ahead of their nearest rival, the CHP, revived Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions while compelling the CHP and MHP to search for a joint candidate to avoid dividing opposition votes. The opposition’s strategy has been to look for a candidate that can weaken Erdoğan’s prospects of winning the presidency in the first round of elections and force him into a second round runoff.
Erdoğan has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but when he does, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu will have an uphill battle to fight with little chance of success for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Ihsanoğlu is not a widely known personality. His name recognition among the Turkish electorate is limited and two months is too short a time to build one. It is also unclear whether he will be capable of playing the kind of “rough and tumble” politics Erdoğan is well versed in. Ihsanoğlu is, after all, a scholar and diplomat accustomed to operating in relatively subdued environments, compared to those associated with the deeply polarized Turkish political scene.
In fact, Ihsanoğlu reportedly confessed to this reality when he once remarked, “I cannot be a politician”. Furthermore, as much as he may strongly appeal to the MHP’s political base in addition to segments of the AKP’s base disillusioned with Erdoğan’s authoritarian ways, it is unclear whether he would be able to gain the support of the CHP’s hard-core secularist base. Lastly, the Kurdish vote is going to be critical.
Erdoğan has been openly courting Kurdish votes quite convincingly for some time now. It is difficult to see how Kurdish votes could go to a candidate partly nominated by an openly right wing Turkish nationalist party. During local elections, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), received just enough of votes that when combined with votes received by the AKP, could put Erdoğan within reach of the presidency in the first round of elections.
Although the likelihood of Ihsanoğlu winning the presidential elections is low, the least he might be able to achieve is force the elections into a second round of voting. He is also unlikely to emerge triumphant in a second round of elections, but he could seriously weaken Erdoğan’s political clout and ambitions for a strong presidency, not to mention undermine his leadership of the AKP.
Süleyman Demirel, a seasoned politician who previously served as both prime minister and president, famously remarked, “24 hours is a long time in politics”. The opposition appears to have nominated a candidate that promises to make this summer’s Turkish politics long and sweltering.
Ihsanoğlu’s nomination may lead to the emergence of other presidential candidates, further splitting the electorate. This could deeply alter the dynamics of the elections, which until recently, were considered Erdoğan’s picking. Ihsanoğlu’s nomination may also precipitate a debate centered on whether Turkey wants a strong presidential system à la Erdoğan, or a continuation of the existing system currently represented by President Abdullah Gül. This is a debate Erdoğan would prefer not to take place.
The writer is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Programme at Brookings, Washington DC