MUHARREM Ince, the presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, receives carnations from a supporter in front of his portrait after an election rally in Bolu, Turkey, on May 22.—AP
MUHARREM Ince, the presidential candidate of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, receives carnations from a supporter in front of his portrait after an election rally in Bolu, Turkey, on May 22.—AP

CORUM: Turkey’s opposition is fielding a leftist candidate known for impassioned speeches and even anti-American rhetoric in a bid to pose a serious challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June’s elections.

With the election just over a month away, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — a bastion of secular Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — is hoping to reverse its electoral fortunes which has seen it struggling to win more than a quarter of the vote.

This time, party chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu decided not to run for the presidency on June 24, instead tapping Muharrem Ince, a senior MP and former physics teacher who has twice tried to oust him as leader.

A gifted speaker who is unafraid of mimicking Erdogan’s tactics, Ince is a total contrast to mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu who, since taking over in 2010, has failed dent the president’s armour.

Since his nomination earlier this month, Ince has criss-crossed the country giving impassioned speeches, riding a bike, driving a tractor and wearing a flat cap in a bid to show he is close to the people’s concerns.

And many of his rallies have been well outside of the CHP heartland.

“He has been combative in his political career, has close contacts with the people in a similar way to Erdogan and is above all witty and tolerant,” said Tanju Tosun, a professor at Ege University.

Such things, he said, are “key” for competing against Erdogan.

‘Reconcile this nation’

At a pre-election rally in Corum, an Anatolian city east of Ankara, Ince struts onto the stage in his trademark informal style, not wearing a tie.

Seeking to go beyond polarising party politics, CHP branding is not encouraged with supporters just waving Turkish flags.

“I want to reunite and reconcile this nation, bring it under one big umbrella,” he promises, criticising Erdogan’s polarising rhetoric and saying he will not be a “ranting and raving” leader.

In November 2015 parliamentary polls, over 61 per cent of Corum voted for Erdogan’s ruling party but CHP officials claim to be making inroads.

On his way to the rally, Erdal Uzunkaya agrees the country needs a fresh face in leadership, pointing to the weakening Turkish lira and rising petrol prices. “Ince is a brave person. He makes me proud.”

But not everyone is convinced, with tradesman Adnan Ercan still undecided.

“It will become clearer at the end,” he said.

Breaking new ground

In another break with tradition, Ince has sought to build bridges with groups who for years have been well outside the CHP’s regular support base.

In one of first acts as candidate, he went to meet Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The CHP has often had uneasy relations with the Kurds, who make up an estimated one-fifth of the population but who have seen the party as nationalist and not concerned with their interests.

Fuat Keyman, director of the Istanbul Policy Center think tank, said both Ince and nationalist candidate Meral Aksener of the Iyi (Good) Party have been “quite open” on the Kurdish question in the campaign.

Symbolically, Ince’s first election rally was in Edirne in Thrace close to the border with Greece but his second was in Hakkari, a Kurdish-majority city at the opposite end of the country on the border with Iraq and Iran.

And tearing a page straight out of Erdogan’s book, Ince has adopted a more antagonistic stance towards the West that is at odds with the traditional outlook of the CHP.

Raising eyebrows in Turkey, he threatened to shut down a US airbase if the United States does not extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Muslim preacher accused by Ankara of being behind the failed 2016 coup.

‘Competitive in second round’

Ince’s strategy in the election will be to emerge as the strongest opposition candidate to Erdogan and hope the president polls less than 50pc, forcing a run-off on July 8 where the rest of the opposition will rally around him.

Tosun said Ince was the only candidate who could “come close” to challenging Erdogan if there was a second round by harvesting Kurdish votes.

He said that Ince’s appearance in the race was squeezing the votes of Aksener and her new party, who some analysts previously fancied to make a breakthrough.

And Ince himself believes he can rally a wide consensus.

“I am the left-wing child of a conservative family,” he told Fox News Turkey in an interview. “The family is a coalition!”—AFP

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2018

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