| ISTANBUL/ANKARA, June 30
ISTANBUL/ANKARA, June 30 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
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-centre
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
emphasise 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.
A BATTLE OF CONSERVATISM?
After nearly a decade heading the world's second largest
international organisation 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 labelling 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
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph