Turkey’s two largest opposition parties have announced a prominent conservative diplomat as their joint candidate for the upcoming presidential election that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, is also expected to contest.
The left-leaning secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said on Monday that they agreed to back Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an experienced academic and diplomat, who stepped down in December as Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The recent move to pick a conservative presidential candidate by the opposition parties is widely seen as an effort to attract conservative voters loyal to Prime Minister Erdogan whose AKP scored a landslide victory in the March 30 local elections.
The polls, which were seen as a vote of confidence for the government, took place in a polarised and tense political atmosphere ignited by electoral fraud claims, online bans towards social media platforms and anonymous Internet postings of recorded conversations that alleged corrupt actions of Erdogan, his family members and aides.
In his first comments after his candidacy was announced, Ihsanoglu was quoted by Turkish press as saying, “It is the result of such kindness to be in the focus of such a compromise.”
If Erdogan, who has dominated the Turkish politics for the last 12 years, formally announces his candidacy for the August elections, the race will be a big challenge for Cairo-born Ihsanoglu as he is not a popular figure among the public.
Many analysts think the choice by the CHP, party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of Turkey’s modern secular republic, would have been unthinkable in the previous years, reflecting how religious conservatism gained strength in Turkey in recent years.
Kadri Gursel, a political analyst and columnist for national daily Milliyet newspaper, believes the significance of the upcoming “historic” presidential election surpasses who the candidates will be.
Gursel told Al Jazeera: “This election is going to be a choice between an authoritarian presidential system and the parliamentary regime.”
“Opposition’s joint choice of candidate who can get AKP votes is in line with this goal of defending the parliamentary system,” he said.
Dr Hatem Ete, director for political research at the Ankara-based think-tank SETA, said it was obvious that the joint opposition candidate was going to be a conservative one, but an Islamic academic such as Ihsanoglu was still unexpected for the CHP’s secular political base.
“A conservative candidate was needed not only to get AKP votes, but also to secure the supporters of MHP, which also has a conservative and fairly religious political base,” Ete said.
Ihsanoglu, known for his calm and conciliatory character, became the first OIC chief to meet the pope last December.
“I have no doubt that there is room for religious freedom improvements in some parts of the Muslim world with regard to allowing non-Muslims to have access to their religious facilities or construction of such facilities,” Ihsanoglu said in an interview with Reuters news agency last year. He also asked Western countries to make more effort to combat an increase of prejudice against Muslims there.
The new president is going to be the first one to take the seat through popular vote, making the process more politicised compared to the past elections, in which the parliament voted for the seat.
The president in Turkey has relatively more powers compared to similar parliamentary regimes. He or she has the power to promulgate laws or return them to the parliament for reconsideration, to call public referendums, to call new parliamentary elections, to appoint the prime minister, ministers, and key bureaucrats.
According to Ete, Ihsanoglu will not be able to mobilise all of CHP and MHP voters to go to the ballot box or secure a significant number of votes from the AKP.
“He is not a politician, Turkish public does not know his ideas about key issues such as the Kurdish question, army’s role in politics or key foreign policy issues such as Iraq and Syria. It is very hard for a bureaucrat to steal votes from a charismatic politician,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kadri Gursel said AKP’s voter base is spread to various circles in Turkish public, adding that not all of them were “Erdogan fanatics”.
He said that AKP supporters who are right-wing but not religiously conservatives, and the ones who are not happy with Erdogan’s performance and rhetoric might vote for Ihsanoglu.
“A candidate, who did not have a potential of getting the AKP votes, would have no chance in the election,” Gursel told Al Jazeera.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras