Leader of small Turkish Islamist party announces bid for presidency

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A small Turkish Islamist party on Tuesday said it would field a candidate in the June 24 presidential snap election, potentially siphoning off critical votes from President Tayyip Erdogan and stopping him from an outright win in the first round.

The Saadet, or Felicity, Party, which has never received enough votes to enter parliament since it was established in 2001, nominated party head Temel Karamollaoglu as its presidential candidate, the party said.

Karamollaoglu still needs to collect 100,000 signatures by May 9 for his presidential run to be approved by Turkey’s High Electoral Board.

The party has proven to be an unexpected but critical ally for Turkey’s secular opposition in the upcoming elections, after refusing calls from the ruling AK Party (AKP) to join the electoral alliance it has made with parliament’s smallest group, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The Saadet Party shares the same Islamist roots with the ruling AK Party and analysts say its entry into the race could help the opposition by drawing voters from the AKP base and forcing a second round of voting.

“Amongst the opposition, it is seen that only and only the Saadet Party can touch the conservative and religious voters,” Gezici poll head Murat Gezici told Reuters.

He said the latest poll shows that Saadet Party has 1-2 percent of total votes but it could draw in up to 8-10 percent of AKP’s voters, increasing the likelihood of a second round.

To win in the first round, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes. Polls indicate a second round is likely to happen and would be held on July 8 if necessary.

Erdogan has won nearly a dozen elections and dominated Turkish politics since the Islamist-rooted AK party swept to power in 2002.

Former president Abdullah Gul, one of the founding members of the AKP, at the weekend said he would not be a candidate, ending weeks of speculation that he would run for the Saadet Party.

The election will mark Turkey’s transition into a presidency with new sweeping executive powers - opposed by the Saadet Party - in a narrowly approved referendum last year.

Even though the two parties were born as a result of the same Islamist movement, Karamollaoglu has criticized the AKP’s handling of the economy and the crackdown under the state of emergency in place since the coup attempt in July 2016.

Speaking on Tuesday in front of a poster with his image alongside the words, “Wise president for Turkey”, Karamollaoglu focused on what he said was the lack of personal freedoms in Turkey.

“The issue in this country is not a matter of rightist-leftist, in its essence. The issue in this country is not a matter of conservative or liberal either. The issue in this country is about the oppressors and the downtrodden.”

Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Editing by Richard Balmforth