When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly announced the presidential and parliamentary elections (one and a half years earlier than the regular term), it looked like a routine operation from theory – that victory is guaranteed and that the undisputed ruler of the state can manage with the great powers given to him by the new presidential system. Erdogan had expected that the dissolved opposition would be struggling to find a suitable rival that could constitute at least a superficial threat to his plans. Two days before Sunday’s vote on June 24, Erdogan has a lot of worries – victory in the first round of voting does not seem easy, and even a possible second round does not seem secure.
The phenomenon Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), turned the election into an extremely exciting game in which, after almost two decades in power, Erdogan may no longer be invincible. Polls say Erdogan can count on 45-46 percent support, and about 30 percent would vote for Ince and they would go to the second round. It looks like a sufficient difference, but the cards for the second round are mixed again, and the overall opposition and Kurdish voters (about 12 percent) have already said they will support Erdogan’s rival.
The appearance of Muharrem Ince is indeed a political and social phenomenon in Turkey, almost unknown in its recent history. Ince, a 54-year-old legislator from the C.H.P., who was chosen as the presidential candidate by his party in May, brought an unprecedented energy to the campaign. Ince’s rallies are remarkably packed, he takes “selfiies” with his supporters at every turn, plays and sings on the stage, and cruises from square to square in major, speaking from the roof of his campaign bus. He promises to put an end to, as he says, the rule of one man, that he will solve the economic problems that have brought great restlessness among common Turks, that he will abolish the state of emergency in effect from the summer of 2016, and that he will not move into the vast palace with 1,150 rooms built by Erdogan, but will move the presidential office to the symbolic suite of Çankaya, which was used by Kemal Ataturk.
How could Muharrem Ince create such a wave of enthusiasm in such a short time? There are several reasons for this. The first one lies in Ince himself. He is the complete opposite of Erdogan. Armed with an extraordinary sense of humor and unification messages, Ince is everything that Erdogan is not. Turkey’s president is a figure that polarizes Turkey, regardless of his electoral victories, he uses antagonistic rhetoric that offends his opponents and thinks that the transformation of the country into a moderate Islamic society should only go according to the dictates of its Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan made an election coalition with ultranationalists from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), believing that the change of society towards conservatism and Islamism had ended, and that with the victory of the elections, it would finally be able to portray himself as someone who is at Ataturk’s level.
Ince joined the campaign in a different manner. First he went to visit all presidential candidates, including Erdogan and the jailed leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, and donated 500 liras in all their campaigns as a demonstration of reconciliation and brotherhood. His family originates from the same city as Erdogan’s roots, Rize of the Black Sea, but was born in Yalova, south of Istanbul, on the coast of the Marmara Sea. Prior to becoming a legislator, he was a physics teacher.
“I am the candidate for the poverty-stricken. My opponent is a White Turk, drinks white tea in the palace. I drink black tea like you. Erdogan is the one who makes headlines in newspapers, I am a man who fights bosses. Erdogan is a supporter of the status quo, I am a reformer,” he said at a rally in Istanbul on June 6. He holds a few rallies a day in different cities. Often some of those gatherings are at midnight. Young people love him. In Istanbul, he reached the stage for a speech after marching 2.5-miles with the crowd drawing everything around him – starting from groups of football fans to the citizens who waved at him from the balconies. Ince promises to reduce inequality in society, stop the brain drain, reform the education system, dramatically increase minority rights, including the Kurdish and Alevites. Ince is a Twitter phenomenon. When he is on TV, Twitter explodes. His wit and intelligence raise the spirit of the ordinary citizen and dispels the fears – that’s why the ratings on the social networks are huge. One of his interviews on an extremely pro-government television was four times higher than that of Erdogan in the same program just a day or two earlier.
Ince promises to reform the judiciary, so hundreds of professors, journalists, intellectuals will be released from prison. He promises to restore the independence of the central bank, and to re-establish a democratic parliamentary system. He himself belongs to the nationalist wing of the secularist party and emphasizes that conservatism in his family is a natural thing (his sister wears a head-scarf).
But Muharrem Ince knows that one of the keys to the eventual victory in the second round is in the voices of the vast Kurdish minority (about 15 million). His CHP party is not remembered in a good way among the Kurds because this party is the guiltiest for their marginalization in society in the past. Recently, in the center of the Kurds, the city of Diyarbakir, a huge crowd gathered to hear whether he had to tell them something different from other mainstream Turkish politicians. In a fiery rhetorical speech he told this to the Kurds: “First we will teach our children in Turkish as a an official language. The second language will be the language they speak with their parents at home, be it Kurdish, Arab or Caucasian.” Ince only reiterated his 2016 stance when he split from his party’s parliamentary group and voted against the lifting of immunity for members of the pro-Kurdish HDP party. This efforts to get closer to the Kurds may have enormous significance in the second round.
Erdogan has so far conquered the vast majority of Kurdish votes, but military intervention against Kurdish militants, which killed 3,600 in recent years, hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and the historic center of Diyarbakir, Sur is in ruins. Many voters distanced themselves from him. The second point for this distancing is that Erdogan has made an electoral coalition with the ultranationalist MHP, which is a major opponent of Kurdish rights in Turkey.
This openness of Ince towards the Kurds may well pay off. His party has made a pre-election coalition with the right-wing Iji party and the Islamist Party for parliamentary elections that are also held on Sunday. The pro-Kurdish HDP party is not in this alliance, but has a tacit agreement that secularist CHP voters will help it reach the 10% threshold for parliamentary membership, and then probably the opposition will win the majority.
Ince’s main problem is whether the campaign won some of the hearts of Erdogan’s most hardcore supporters in Anatolia. Without their support, the second round victory is almost impossible. Ince tried to attract some of those supporters through a television duel with Erdogan. “Let’s debate on a television of your choice,” he recently told Erdogan. The president stayed silent for several days, but responded last weekend from his distinctive height: “He feels no shame when he invites me to a television debate. He wants to increase his ratings thanks to us.” Ince responded expressly: “He said I was trying to increase my rating. Even the weather forecast has higher rating than his interviews.”
Perhaps Muharrem Ince introduced unpredictable dynamics in a single Turkish policy dominated by one man and one party. In an extremely short time he mobilized mass support, bringing in the hope of change for them. But is that enough? Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still alpha and omega in Turkish politics. The Turks of one or the other political specters are eagerly awaiting the morning of June 25 – will this fresh breeze in Turkish politics bring electoral surprises.