Why Ekmel Bey matters

Why Ekmel Bey matters

Since the moment his name dropped into the political sphere, the former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is the most searched and tweeted figure in Turkey. His presence overshadowed Erdoğan’s weekly speeches and its dominance in the news cycle gave the nation at least some breathing room to think about.

As many columnists mention, Mr. İhsanoğlu’s biggest strength comes from his distance to everyday politics. “His name would make every little coffee shop owner in the heart of Anatolia comfortable” said a respected political analyst. “The Gezi Park protesters may feel he is too religious, but look at his lifestyle.”

Indeed, Ekmel Bey, as we all refer to him now has a stealth weapon for the Kemalist ladies of İzmir and Istanbul. His wife, pharmacist Füsun İhsanoğlu is the symbol of a generation of women that grew up in traditional families with secular values and education. Her sheer presence, and yes, her image without the headscarf, is the biggest challenge to the secular circles that rush to criticize Mr. İhsanoğlu. Füsun İhsanoğlu’s family tree includes former Justice Party members and Süleyman Demirel’s allies. What this means is more than religion and secularism.

İhsanoğlu is almost a more intellectual Turgut Özal with bigger international credentials. His candidacy symbolizes the need in the Islamic World to reconcile religion with Western democracy. As the war in Iraq and Syria comes knocking on Turkey’s door, İhsanoğlu’s presence may be the only chance not just for Turkey, but for the pluralistic societies of the Middle East.

Yet his run for Çankaya is not without challenges. Can Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu convince his biggest support group, the Alevis? Can the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Republican People’s Party (CHP) run a joint election campaign against the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) almost flawless machinery? And will the holiday goers, who will be basking in the Bodrum or Çeşme sun, care to come back to the polls in the second round?

İhsanoğlu’s chance depends on the dedication and commitment of the CHP’s voters. According to pollsters who covered the results of the most recent local elections, CHP voters are the most politically risk averse group who react emotionally first, but vote sensibly and logically in the end. They are also the Achilles Heel of this election campaign. Sources in Ankara tell me the AK Party and the prime minister is already building his campaign around a possible rift in the CHP and will push for a deepening disagreement within the CHP ranks. So one should hardly be surprised when Deniz Baykal, the man who put Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his Prime Ministry seat, gets excited about whispers in his ear about running against İhsanoğlu.

Let me warn Mr. Baykal and his fan-club of hardliner ladies, honestly, his legacy never was a good one. And it never will be. So be done with it, because we are done with it.

İhsanoğlu may not be the ideal candidate for a Sweden-type of social democrat who lives in Beşiktaş or Etiler, spends his holidays in the Aegean coast or better in Europe, sends his/her kids to private schools and does not care a bit about the villager in Yozgat or the coal miner in Soma. But Turkey has made those mistakes too many times. Now it is time to build a coalition around a person who can make you feel comfortable when he visits Versailles or the White House; a person who would not nominate a crony businessman to the Constitutional Court, or appoint a false academic as a president to a university; a person whose words will be respected in the East as much as in the West and a person who embodies the tradition of the Ottoman Empire and the modernism of the Republic.

Think about it. What kind of a president would Ekmel Bey really make?

He may be closer to Gezi Park than Tahrir Square.