Five candidates compete in Turkey’s presidential race
ISTANBUL - When Turks go to the polls June 24 to elect a new head of state, they will have five major candidates from whom to choose. Incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a field of three men and one woman who could force him into a run-off vote July 8 if he fails to win more than 50% in the first round. Here is an overview of the candidates:
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN:
Turkey’s strongman leader since 2003, the 64-year old heads the presidential hopefuls. Even though his policies, especially since a coup attempt in 2016, have been highly divisive, millions of Turks revere Erdogan as the man who broke the rule of secularist elites and created prosperity for a new middle class of observant Muslims. He wants to use the election to usher in a presidential system with wide-ranging executive powers.
Erdogan is one of Turkey’s best political orators and known for his abrasive rhetoric. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative group rooted in political Islam, is by far the biggest political organisation in the country. Erdogan’s position is further bolstered by his grip on state institutions and the media, most of which have been sold to pro-government companies in recent years. Still, the opposition has challenged him on many fronts, including the economy, which is showing signs of high unemployment and rising inflation. Critics say Erdogan has turned from a reformer into an autocrat primarily interested in widening his own personal power. Polls put him at around 45% of the vote.
The 54-year-old former physics teacher has become the surprise star of the election campaign. Known as a rebel in his own party, the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ince has motivated opposition supporters frustrated with the CHP’s inability to beat Erdogan at the polls. As he crisscrosses the country, Ince attacks Erdogan where it hurts: He questions the president’s economic policies and Erdogan’s former cooperation with Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Islamic preacher accused by the AKP of masterminding the coup attempt of 2016. Ince promises to lift the state of emergency, fix the economy and return to a path of political reforms if he wins the presidency.
Critics say Ince has no experience in governing and has little to offer beyond the aim of unseating Erdogan. The CHP is the political home of Turkey’s former secularist elites who are held responsible for discriminating against pious Muslims through a headscarf ban at universities and other measures. The CHP and Ince remain unelectable for millions of Turks who remember the time before the AKP took over 15 years ago. Polls say Ince can hope to score around 20% of the vote in the presidential election. That makes him the most likely challenger of Erdogan in a possible second round.
An interior minister in the 1990s, Aksener has been attacking Erdogan from the right. The staunchly nationalist 61-year-old is the only woman among Turkey’s presidential candidates and a dangerous foe for the president, as she attracts right-wing voters frustrated with Erdogan and his nationalist partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Aksener began her career in a right-of-centre party but joined the MHP, which gave her a high-profile post as deputy speaker of parliament. When she started an inner-party revolt against MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, she was expelled and started the IYI Parti (Good Party).
Aksener has entered into an election alliance with the left-leaning CHP, which guarantees her own party a parliamentary presence, and, like the CHP, promises to roll back Erdogan’s project of a presidential system to preserve Turkey’s parliamentary system. As she is virtually unelectable for Kurds and left-leaning Turks because of her past as a hard-line minister, her hopes to become president are slim. Polls put her at around 11% of the vote in the presidential race, not enough to win but potentially enough to deny Erdogan a first-round victory. She has promised to support the strongest opposition candidate in a run-off vote.
While the other candidates travel around the country to meet supporters and give speeches, the 45-year-old lawyer from Elazig in eastern Turkey has to conduct his presidential election campaign from a prison cell in Edirne, on the border with Greece. Demirtas has been in pre-trial detention since late 2016 when prosecutors charged him with spreading terrorist propaganda. His party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is accused by Erdogan and the judiciary of being the political arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984 and seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West. Demirtas and his supporters say the government is trying to stifle dissent.
Telegenic and a talented orator, Demirtas shot to fame in the presidential election of 2014, when he received approximately 10% of the vote — a high result for a Kurdish candidate — and led the HDP to a record 13% in parliamentary elections a year later. He widened the HDP’s appeal beyond its traditional base of Kurdish nationalists to include non-Kurdish members of the left-liberal intelligentsia in Turkey’s big cities. Polls said this recipe could work again on June 24 as Demirtas is seen by many as the underdog in an unfair race. Surveys put him at around 11% of the nationwide vote. Demirtas’ recommendation to his voters for a second round could become crucial for the eventual outcome.
The 77-year-old leader of the small Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) is the oldest among the presidential candidates but has proven to be an effective player challenging Erdogan on the turf of political Islam. He has portrayed the AKP as corrupt and signalled his willingness to address Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem by means of political reforms that would give the Kurds more rights, a path that Erdogan followed for several years before shifting to a nationalist line.
Before Karamollaoglu became a candidate, his first choice was Abdullah Gul, a former Erdogan ally and head of state from 2007-14. The Saadet leader hoped to win Gul over as a candidate who could unite religious, conservative and reform-minded voters but the former president declined to run. Polls see Karamollaoglu at 2% but his appearance on the ballot could deprive Erdogan of crucial votes.