Combative spoiler enters Turkey’s election campaign

Muharrem Ince won 30.6 percent of the vote in Turkey’s 2018 presidential election – Copyright AFP Yasin AKGUL


Turkey’s top politicians have formed two camps heading into May’s election: those who revere President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and those united in the single goal of ending his two-decade rule.

Then Muharrem Ince came along.

The Turkish leader’s chief rival in the last election in 2018 all but vanished after picking up 30.6 percent of the vote.

Erdogan’s 52.6 percent allowed him to extend a run that has seen his Islamic-rooted party become Turkey’s most transformative force since the secular state’s creation by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk 100 years ago.

A lot has happened since Ince’s defeat.

Six disparate parties have built an anti-Erdogan alliance and — after a year-long debate — rallied around the candidacy of secular CHP party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the May 14 vote.

A major pro-Kurdish party has also given Kilicdaroglu its tacit support.

The opposition alliance is the most multi-faceted and seemingly popular of any Erdogan has faced at the ballot box.

This makes Ince’s decision to run again particularly frustrating for Erdogan’s political foes.

“This is bad news for the opposition,” Sabanci University political science assistant professor Berk Esen told AFP. 

“Ince’s ability to draw votes from the CHP and (its junior partner) the Iyi Party could have a spoiler effect and force the presidential election to a second round.”

– ‘I will be elected’ –

Ince (pronounced Indzhe) represented the CHP in the last election because the party felt the more mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu had less public appeal.

His passionate speeches and combative persona mimicked Erdogan’s own campaign style and drew huge crowds in the last campaign.

Hopes were high — and the disappointment deep.

Ince’s defeat was followed by an hours-long silence that he broke by sending a curt text message to a reporter saying simply: “the man won”.

The brusque remark created national headlines and contributed to a loss of Ince’s popularity in the polls.

But Ince remained undeterred.

He immediately tried and failed to challenge Kilicdaroglu for the CHP leadership and then went on a national bus tour to drum up support for his own political brand.

Ince’s new Memleket (Homeland) Party resonates most with secular nationalist voters who comprise an important part of Kilicdaroglu’s current base of support.

The 58-year-old native of a small village near Istanbul sounded characteristically confident after submitting his candidacy to the Higher Election Board this week. 

“The election will go to the second round, and in the second round I will be elected president with more than 60 percent of the vote,” he said. 

– ‘What does he represent?’ –

Ince’s last-minute entry into a race that was shaping into the opposition’s best chance yet to defeat Erdogan has ruffled feathers across the political spectrum.

Analyst Serkan Demirtas said Ince was trying to present himself as an alternative without truly defining what he stood for.

“He says he’s against Erdogan, and he’s also against Kilicdaroglu, but what does he represent? We don’t know,” Demirtas told AFP. 

Most agree that anyone trying to single-handedly defeat Erdogan will not only fail but also hurt the opposition alliance.

“Ince is unlikely to steal from the ruling party’s votes,” well-connected political journalist Deniz Zeyrek remarked.

“Who would that serve most? Erdogan.” 

Eurasia Group analyst Emre Peker said Ince’s ability to draw votes away from Kilicdaroglu will make his position crucial in the likely runoff on May 28.

“Whether he and the CHP bury the hatchet… will be key to Kilicdaroglu’s prospects in the second round,” Peker wrote in a note.

– Gen Z voters –

Analysts believe Ince mostly appeals to younger voters who are tired of Erdogan and uninspired by the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu — a former civil servant who calls himself the “quiet force”.

“He seems to be especially popular with Gen Z voters who can be easily swayed by anti-status quo candidates,” Sabanci University’s Esen said.

“For them, Kilicdaroglu is not a fresh face.”

Erdogan’s opponents are still quietly trying to force Ince to pull out of the race.

“Withdraw as soon as possible… Your candidacy will not bring you any success,” popular Turkish tenor and columnist Guvenc Dagustun wrote in the left-leaning BirGun newspaper.

Zeyrek felt Ince could still change his mind at the last moment and end his campaign.

“I think the CHP should be talking to him,” the political journalist said.

Combative spoiler enters Turkey’s election campaign
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