ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - A quick glance at the emerging candidates for Turkey’s first direct presidential poll illustrates the dramatic change wrought in the country by Tayyip Erdogan’s 11-year premiership; an old secularist elite has yielded the stage to two men of Islamist pedigree and a third from a long-suppressed Kurdish minority.
“It is certainly novel, a new republic,” says Soli Ozel, a professor in political science at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “We really are in uncharted waters.”
Prime Minister Erdogan, his popularity unscathed by a flare-up of anti-government riots and a corruption scandal, is widely expected to announce his presidential bid on Tuesday for August elections that could further strengthen his hold on power.
Many see his victory as inevitable. Since his AK party came to power in 2002, he has built huge support among conservative Muslims, many of them poor, who had felt treated as second-class citizens in a secular society - pious women, for instance, excluded from state buildings because they wore headscarves.
Erdogan, now 60, himself served a brief prison sentence in 1999 on charges of Islamist activity.
Taking the reins of power only four years later, he tamed the army that had seen itself as final guarantor against Islamism and had toppled four governments in four decades.
Rather than taboo, religion is now a front-and-center political issue. The notion of a secularist president has become politically toxic for many of Turkey’s 77 million citizens.
So much so that Turkey’s foremost secularist party, the CHP, the party of secular state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the nationalist MHP have chosen as joint nominee Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a diplomat and academic who was at the helm of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for nine years until 2014.
The choice of Cairo-born Ihsanoglu - who has dedicated a large part of his life to promoting Islam - has drawn fierce criticism from some diehard secularists within CHP, with several refusing to sign his formal nomination.
In his first remarks on being proposed, Ihsanoglu, whose wife unlike Erdogan’s does not wear the headscarf, was quick to emphasize the importance of separating state and religion. The Islamic world, he said, had become “muddled” on the issue.
He also praised Ataturk, in marked contrast to the prime minister, who offended many Kemalist Turks when he appeared to refer to the founder as a drunkard during a speech in May 2013.
After nearly a decade heading the world’s second largest international organization representing 1.5 billion people across the Muslim world, 70-year-old Ihsanoglu’s diplomatic and religious credentials are hardly in question.
But Aykan Erdemir, a deputy for CHP, insists he is not a pale imitation of the firebrand Erdogan, but rather a credible alternative for millions of pious Turks.
“To me he is the exact opposite of Erdogan, pluralist versus majoritarian, a conciliator versus a loud and populist zealot. We have a genuine choice between a liberal or an authoritarian president,” he told Reuters.
Analysts say that Ihsanoglu represents a return to the politically secular and liberal values, underpinned by religion, that AKP espoused when it first came to power. He might thus be able to poach disgruntled Erdogan supporters weary of an increasingly autocratic style and inflammatory language.
At the height of a corruption scandal earlier this year that touched upon members of his cabinet, Erdogan branded political opponents terrorists and traitors. A police investigation ground to a virtual halt when he purged police and judiciary.
Murat Yetkin, of the liberal Radikal newspaper, says the decision by CHP and MHP to field Ihsanoglu as a joint candidate means they will be entering Erdogan’s “backyard”. Ihsanoglu’s unimpeachable reputation might make it more difficult for Erdogan and his supporters to launch political attacks.
“A potential defamation campaign against Ihsanoglu, who is known for his gentlemanly character, may not find supporters even in AK Party’s base,” Yetkin said.
But even if Ihsanoglu’s Islamic credentials afford him some protection, Erdogan aides could turn their fire on what they see as Ihsanoglu’s failure to follow Ankara’s condemnation of the army toppling of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.
Ihsanoglu’s experience in international affairs and the Arab world will also be of little help with the Turkish public, many of whom were unaware of his existence until last week.
Nor will it protect him from a rapacious pro-government press, with one columnist already labeling him a tool of foreign interests, a “Coca Cola Candidate”. Erdogan himself has accused political opponents of being in cahoots with foreign powers to undermine Turkey.
At stake for Erdogan is a refashioned presidency, stripped of its largely ceremonial character and imbued by practice and future legislation with strong executive powers. He has already established his primacy over the armed forces, judiciary and police, all of course underpinned by personal popularity.
Polls indicate that if as expected Erdogan is confirmed as the AKP candidate on Tuesday, his rivals will have a mountain to climb even to force him to a second round, with polls giving him around 55 percent of the vote and a twenty point lead.
But if Erdogan does dip below the required 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, Turkey’s Kurdish minority, an estimated 15-20 percent of the population, could decide his fate.
Efforts to end decades of conflict between the government and Kurdish militants have played a key role in Erdogan’s premiership, leading to a ceasefire last year, and a slackening of draconian laws on Kurdish language and culture.
Before Erdogan, even writing a newspaper article espousing cultural or political concessions to Kurds could win a jail sentence. Any public, or private, expression of sympathy the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was similarly perilous.
Erdogan took a considerable political risk, not least with the military, in opening talks with the PKK.
Analysts say roughly half of all Kurds already vote for AKP and many more will likely follow suit in the belief that Erdogan offers the best hope of a lasting peace settlement. His government sent to parliament last week a bill setting out a legal framework for peace talks in a boost to the process.
Speculation that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) might tacitly throw its weight behind Erdogan in the first round by naming either a weak candidate or no candidate at all has not materialised however, with HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, 41, putting his hat in the ring as party candidate.
“He’s a serious candidate, and if his supporters vote for him, that’s a 6 or 7 percent chunk of the vote whose destination is already known. They want space for negotiating with Erdogan between the first and second rounds,” according to Kadir Has’s Ozel.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton