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Turkish Opposition’s Electoral Strategy: Challenge Erdoğan on his Own Turf

On June 16, Turkey’s two main opposition parties, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), decided to nominate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as a joint candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for August 10. This choice appears motivated less by ideological or policy concerns—İhsanoğlu does not have much in common with either party’s core values—than by a political gamble. CHP and MHP have nominated a moderate Islamic conservative to try and break the stranglehold that the ruling Justice and Development Party’s presumptive candidate, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has on Turkey’s conservative voting bloc.

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, 71, was born in Egypt, where his family settled after the expulsion of his father from Turkey soon after its founding in 1923. İhsanoğlu’s father belonged to a group of 150 people who were expelled from Turkey because of affiliations with the old, Ottoman regime. Following, perhaps, in his father’s footsteps, İhsanoğlu is an Ottomanist, with a special focus on Ottoman history and literature. After a respected academic career, he was in charge of cultural studies within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for many years. In 2004, he became its Secretary-General, a post he held for the next decade. This does not make İhsanoğlu an Islamist, but intellectually and ideologically he belongs to an Islamic, conservative tradition. Nor is he anti-Western, but rather non-Western. His résumé does not suggest that he would endorse any kind of confrontation with Turkey’s Western allies.

It is ironic that the party that founded the Turkish republic, CHP, has nominated a person with İhsanoğlu’s background. There is nothing in his biography that suggests any relation whatsoever to the ideological legacy of the founder of the Turkish republic and the CHP, Kemal Atatürk. Nor does İhsanoğlu appear to have anything else in common with the electorate of the CHP, the urban, secular middle class. As an intellectual and an Islamic internationalist, he may not be very inspiring for the MHP electorate either. The MHP base is rural and conservative, and although religious, MHP voters generally care more about Turkish nationalism than about Islamic internationalism.

Rather, a person like İhsanoğlu would have been a natural choice of the Islamic conservative AKP, if the party had remained interested in maintaining good ties with the West, while simultaneously developing a deeper relation with the Muslim world. In many respects, his profile is similar to that of President Abdullah Gül: İhsanoğlu is soft-spoken, conservative and he is respected internationally, at least in the Muslim world. This perhaps is no coincidence. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, had initially tried to persuade Gül to stand for reelection.

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.

But energy is precisely what the opposition will need. At the time of the election in mid-August, many secular, social democratic, and urban middle class voters will be on vacation. To vote, they will have to interrupt their holiday to return home to their polling stations. It is by no means certain they will be willing to make this effort in order to support a representative of the ideological tradition that has already been in charge of Turkey’s destiny for more than a decade. There is, thus, a significant risk that social democrats and other secular voters will simply not turn out.

Second, the CHP’s and MHP’s calculus that enough conservative voters are going to prefer moderation–represented by an unknown figure such as İhsanoğlu–over Erdoğan’s firebrand conservatism may also prove unfounded. It is true that generally, Turkey’s electorate historically has lent support to more moderate versions of conservatism. In that sense, the profile of İhsanoğlu, as well as that of Abdullah Gül, fits well into Turkey’s dominant political tradition. But that is not how Erdoğan has found political success.

Erdoğan has waged, especially in the last year, a campaign of polarization—casting himself as the strong bulwark necessary to protect religious conservative voters against encroachments by secularists and liberals. If the AKP’s voting bloc still feels sufficiently threatened by last year’s Gezi protests and corruption allegations against the government, such a strategy will continue to resonate.

But even if the selection of İhsanoğlu is able to somehow counter Erdoğan’s confrontational style—either because the choice of a conservative allays AKP voters’ fears of the opposition or because Erdoğan will not be able to play his divisive game successfully against an opponent whose conservative credentials are impeccable—it is not clear why the conservative base would opt for him. Simply on account of his record and the personal rapport that he has established with them, Erdoğan would still have the upper hand against İhsanoğlu in the contest for the loyalty of the conservative voters.

Nonetheless, the nomination of İhsanoğlu has ensured that Turkey’s presidential election will not be waged along the ideological fault lines that divide the country: it will not be about secularism versus religious conservatism. If the choice on August 10 is between Elkmeddin İhsanoğlu and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the outcome will be determined by voter turnout and the choice made by conservative voters between moderation and confrontation.

Halil Karaveli is a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Turkey Initiative and serves as a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute/Silk Road Studies Program, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.

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