A broad-ranging political, media and public discussion erupted inside and outside Turkey as soon as Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the secular Atatürk-founded Republican People’s Party (CHP) announced that Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu would be the opposition’s candidate at the Turkish presidential elections. İhsanoğlu is the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the son of the late Ihsan Efendi, one of the most prominent Islamist thinkers who defended the Ottoman Caliphate and who was a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and a right-wing conservative with Arab leanings.
At first, many viewed this announcement as a step towards a historic conciliation between secular Turks and the country’s history and heritage in the wider Islamic and Arab world—something that the modern Turkish state had largely abandoned. But when opposition leaders started praising İhsanoğlu’s secularism and Atatürkism, and his openness to Western civilizations and culture, the idea became clearer and clearer: the Turkish opposition is simply seeking to use İhsanoğlu to weaken the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and disrupt Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to reach Çankaya Köşkü, the presidential palace.
The Turkish opposition, which has been divided, weak and broken since their poor showing in the municipal elections in March, is trying to convince its supporters that the plan to unite its various wings is progressing successfully. The opposition has chosen to roundly back İhsanoğlu, and if it manages to put him in Çankaya Köşkü, they will have achieved a significant political success. However, if this plan fails, the opposition could still have established a space for mutual cooperation in preparation for the upcoming parliamentary elections early next summer.
Turkey’s opposition, which has been pursuing a dream to return to power for many years, wants İhsanoğlu to help it out of this crisis; but will he be able to do this?
And if he isn’t able to win the presidential elections; whom is this a defeat for? İhsanoğlu himself or the opposition parties that took the decision to back him, eschewing the disapproval of their more hardline elements who oppose İhsanoğlu’s candidacy?
The problem with the opposition leadership—whether we are talking about the CHP or the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—is that they insist on manipulating the tendencies and desires of millions of Turkish people to save themselves and score points against their adversaries, even if the price is abandoning loyalties and obligations and damaging İhsanoğlu’s reputation? İhsanoğlu will have certainly realized that this is a possibility before embarking on an adventure of this type, but he will nonetheless seek to avoid destroying what took him decades of academic and professional success to build, not to mention his wide network of relations around the world.
We are fast approaching the presidential elections in Turkey, and the AKP has yet to announce its candidate. There has been no manifesto, no campaign, no fervor, no political or public action and no election atmosphere.
Each party is stuck in their positions, the candidates and votes are practically already known. Little will change in the coming days and weeks. Erdoğan is a shoo-in for the presidency, so why has İhsanoğlu entered the fray in an attempt to turn the issues upside down?
The hardliners in the nationalist and secularist camp, both on the left-wing and right-wing, will monitor İhsanoğlu’s performance closely and latch on to the first mistakes he makes. Turkish Kurds have refused to support him in the first round, taking the decision instead to participate with their own independent candidate.
If the presidential elections make it to the runoff stage, İhsanoğlu will still have the tough task of sitting down and negotiating with the Kurdish leaders about what he could offer them, particularly when they have repeatedly stated they will not accept anything less than what they achieved through popular and armed movement.
İhsanoğlu knows very well that some people could seek to use him as a spoiler, and that the opposition is trying to stop Erdoğan from throwing his traditional accusations towards the opposition, namely that they are rigid and inflexible in their positions and policies. They have put forward İhsanoğlu’s name to demonstrate that they are not.
The opposition, by selecting İhsanoğlu, wanted to agree on a name that can work, and maneuver on their behalf in Erdoğan’s own backyard. They also want to prove their belief in openness and change, but they will not be slow to scapegoat İhsanoğlu if this plan fails, or indeed to claim responsibility for victory if it does not.
The opposition is trying to break the AKP’s monopoly of power, taking advantage of all opportunities and means available to them, which is why they selected a figure who moves within the same social, intellectual and cultural spheres of Erdoğan and his party, refusing to raise the white flag and surrender.
It is an attempt to pressure the AKP—directly targeting the AKP’s inner circles by nominating a figure who is known to this party and who knows their strengths and weaknesses after a decade of cooperation and coordination.
However, this does not mean that the task of persuading the secular, leftist, Atatürkist voters to go to the ballot boxes and vote for İhsanoğlu will be easy.
İhsanoğlu’s task may have been far easier had he entered the competition through the previous election system, where the parliament selected the president, because even if he failed, the repercussions of this failure would have been limited. However İhsanoğlu is well aware of the gamble that he is taking this time, particularly as he is directly asking the Turkish people to go out and vote for him. İhsanoğlu, it must be said, is not a very well known person inside Turkey, despite heading the largest Islamic international organization in the world.
The initial opinion polls may not be too bad, but Erdoğan is seen to be still comfortably winning the elections—even outright. This is only serving to increase the number of people within the ranks of the CHP who have begun to suggest an alternative candidate with a more pronounced leftist secularist identity.
What is clear is that the only political force capable of defeating the AKP is an opposition front within the party itself. This is something that could develop owing to differences in positions, and narrow political calculations between the party’s hawks and doves over Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Otherwise, the only chance for Turkey’s political players is to wait and gamble on a division such as this.