A smart choice by Turkish opposition for presidency

A smart choice by Turkish opposition for presidency

After weeks of meetings, the two major opposition parties have come up with a joint candidate for the first round of the presidential elections set for Aug. 10.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) suggested Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to Devlet Bahçeli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), in a meeting on June 16 and received his “full support.”

With this move, the opposition has announced a candidate before the government. It is still not clear whether Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government will announce his candidacy, despite the fact that he has made it clear repeatedly that he wants to become Turkey’s next president.

For many, İhsanoğlu as the CHP’s choice was a surprise. It breaks some taboos for the secularist and social democratic CHP to decide that the former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should be the next president.

But at a closer look, one can see a smart tactical calculation behind the move, for a number of reasons:

1- The first one to come up with the concept of a joint candidate was Bahçeli of the MHP. He had said that such a candidate should be patriotic, conservative, democratic, secularist and with high moral values.

2- At that point, the CHP was considering coming up with its own candidate. But in time Kılıçdaroğlu came to the conclusion that with only a CHP candidate it would not be possible to expand its own voter base, but with a non-partisan, respected name there would be such a possibility. This had been tested with a former MHP candidate like Mansur Yavaş, who the CHP nominated for the Ankara mayoral position, expanding its vote base in Ankara despite losing the race by a close margin.

3- The CHP had one other criteria in addition to that of the MHP. Kılıçdaroğlu had made an open call to the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – now transforming into the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) - to support the CHP’s candidate in the presidentials.

4- The BDP, which shares the same grassroots as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is in negotiations with the government for a political settlement to the long-running Kurdish problem, has already been planning to force PM Erdoğan into bargaining over Kurdish autonomy and the release of the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in return for presidential support. Despite getting nearly 45 percent of the votes in the March 30 local elections, Erdoğan will need 50 percent plus one vote in the first round. The CHP is clearly seeking to give an option to Kurdish votes if Erdoğan does not meet their demands.

5- The answer came from Selahattin Demirtaş of the BDP, who said their support “in the second round” on Aug. 24 was not out of the question if the CHP presents a candidate who "respects the rights of all peoples."

6- In addition to all those factors, İhsanoğlu is a name from the AK Parti’s backyard. With the proposal of the Erdoğan government (and when President Abdullah Gül was still serving as foreign minister) İhsanoğlu was elected as Secretary General for the Islamic Cooperation, the second biggest international organization after the U.N. and served for nine years there, starting from late 2004. This had been a success story for Erdoğan until the coup in Egypt in June 2013. Erdoğan asked İhsanoğlu (since he is a Turkish citizen, yet born and raised in Cairo) to condemn Egypt and implement punitive measures. But as the OIC representative, İhsanoğlu refrained from doing so and stayed loyal to OIC decisions.

After that, Erdoğan and AK Parti spokespeople put İhsanoğlu on their target list and started hitting hard. However, despite all that, İhsanoğlu still has respect within the AK Parti voter base. He is actually more renowned among AK Parti and MHP circles than the CHP’s, which is why Bahçeli said he was happy that Kılıçdaroğlu had come up with İhsanoğlu for the candidacy. What's more, Kurdish voters do not have any particular negative feelings about him.

Now it is Erdoğan’s turn. He knows the Kurds hold the key to the presidential elections at a time the government is having a number of serious difficulties, like the hostages held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq, ISIL’s advance to Turkmen cities in Iraq, problems with Kurdish groups in both Iraq and Syria, the entire Syrian situation, Iran’s rapprochement with the U.S., and the dialogue process with the PKK. Erdoğan’s choice of whether he will be the candidate of AK Parti will determine the near future of politics. Because if he gives up the idea of being the next president and supports Gül instead, there will be a totally different political picture.