Turkey polarised ahead of presidential polls

Supporters and opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan express heated views on his candidacy only days before the election.

Turkish presidential candidate Ihsanoglu has the support of the two largest opposition parties [AFP]

Turks are deeply divided over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential candidacy ahead of the key election on August 10.

Erdogan is looking to extend his more than 10 years in power in Turkey, as his main opponent Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a conservative academic and diplomat who used to lead the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, is hoping to score a surprise victory.

Ihsanoglu is supported by the left-leaning secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), two of the largest opposition parties in the country, in addition to various smaller ones. Ihsanoglu, however, is a largely unknown figure among the Turkish public.

“I will not vote for Ihsanoglu because of his personality, but because he is running against Erdogan. I will vote for him as I care about my freedoms and Erdogan is a threat to that,” Gizem Sedef, a 26-year-old interior designer from Istanbul’s predominantly secular neighbourhood of Nisantasi, told Al Jazeera.

Gulin Sonuc, an IT consultant from the city’s Kadikoy district, had a similar opinion. “I hardly know Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, but there are no other choices as he is the candidate of the opposition,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cem Ozturk, from the district of Bakirkoy, said he will vote for Erdogan because the CHP-MHP alliance did not present a better candidate. “I am not a partisan voter and I don’t support Erdogan [on] every aspect, but he is the best among the candidates. Ihsanoglu is a candidate imported from abroad. And [Selahattin] Demirtas is a supporter of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK, a pro-Kurdish armed group],” the 26-year-old lawyer told Al Jazeera.

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For the first time in Turkey’s history, Turks will elect their president by a popular vote, in line with a constitutional amendment adopted in 2007.

Selahattin Demirtas, a senior figure among Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is the third presidential candidate. He is supported by the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a pro-minority rights party supported primarily by Kurdish Turks. 

Unless a candidate receives more than 50 percent support in the first round, a run-off vote will be held on August 24 between the top two candidates.

The presidential vote is to take place just three months after Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) scored a landslide win in local elections. The race took place in a tense political climate amid new internet controls, frequent anti-government protests and allegations of corruption surrounding Erdogan’s government.

Among the recent controversies on the upcoming election was the alleged use of state property by Erdogan’s presidential campaign. Last month, Ihsanoglu said Erdogan was using state owned planes, helicopters, and other facilities, which were not being provided for his presidential campaign. “We know we are competing in unequal circumstances. But there, the will of the people and God is superior to all of this,” he said.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a Vienna-based international security and rights organisation, slammed the government for the same reason.

We know we are competing in unequal circumstances. But there, the will of the people and God is superior to all of this.

by - Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Turkish presidential candidate

“The campaign activities of the prime minister are large-scale events, often combined with official government events. While other candidates actively campaign, the public visibility of their campaigns is limited,” said an OSCE report released on July 31, according to Turkish media.

The OSCE also announced that its observers were to monitor the presidential polls. There were many claims of irregularities and corruption after Turkey held local elections last March.

In another development, Turkey’s media watchdog said that Turkey’s state television covered the upcoming election in a one-sided manner that favoured Erdogan.

According to Tarhan Erdem, a writer and columnist for liberal Radikal newspaper, the fact that Erdogan is running for the presidency while keeping his position as prime minister undermines the principle of equality.

“In line with the Article 11 of Turkish law on presidential elections, Turkey’s High Electoral Council should have dropped Erdogan’s position as prime minister after his application as presidential candidate was made. However, this never happened and therefore an unbalanced campaign environment was created,” Erdem told Al Jazeera.

A poll conducted by Washington-based Pew Research Center of 1,001 people between April 11 and May 14 found opinions on Erdogan’s leadership record were sharply fragmented. Respondents were evenly split on their feelings about Erdogan’s policies, with 48 percent saying that he has positive influence on the country while the same percentage said the opposite.

A majority of 51 percent said they were not satisfied with the country’s direction, while 44 percent said they were.

However, Pew noted that the mood in Turkey was much more negative before 2011, with clear majorities expressing dissatisfaction with the country’s direction each year between 2002 and 2010. It added that opinions have been similarly split over the last four years.

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The choice of Ihsanoglu by two major opposition parties is widely perceived as an effort to attract the voter base of Erdogan and his AK Party. However, Cairo-born Ihsanoglu, who lived abroad for several years, had no contact with the Turkish public until his presidential candidacy was announced several weeks ago.

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Erdem said the CHP and MHP have nothing in common apart from being in the opposition, adding that they picked Ihsanoglu as their candidate without polling their voter base.

“They should have come up with one or multiple candidates each and let voters choose whoever they wanted for the second round, which is going to take place between two candidates,” he told Al Jazeera.

In his campaign, Erdogan talked about infrastructure projects, foreign policy actions, economic reforms, and a new constitution featuring a presidential system, promising an unconventional presidency, a position which is highly symbolic in Turkish politics.

Conversely, Ihsanoglu stressed “unity” and “neutrality”, drawing a more traditional and passive picture for his potential presidency.

Many Erdogan supporters think their life standards and freedoms, as well as the country’s international image, have improved during the AK Party’s 12-year rule. “Erdogan stands strong and determined both in domestic and foreign policy areas. During his leadership, the economy has improved and Turkey got a better place in the world,” Esma Erdogan (no relation to the prime minister), a 30-year-old accountant from Istanbul’s Kurtkoy district, told Al Jazeera.

She also said she expects Erdogan to use less polarising rhetoric if he is elected president.

Gurhan Saribas, who is from the industrial city of Kocaeli in the east of Istanbul, said that Erdogan works to create an environment where all Turks can live together, while boosting Turkey’s reputation abroad.

“I believe his party increased the life standards of all people in the country without restricting anybody’s freedom, neither conservatives nor seculars in Turkey. Now both cultures in the Turkish society are free whereas conservatives were suppressed before the AKP government,” the 30-year-old electrical engineer said.

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On the other hand, many opponents of the prime minister see him as a threat to the parliamentary system, secularism, and civil liberties.

Erdogan's restrictions, the belittling way he talks and his dictatorial behaviour make me want to vote against him.

by - Gizem Sedef, opposition voter

“Erdogan’s restrictions, the belittling way he talks and his dictatorial behaviour make me want to vote against him. He is likely to get more authoritarian after he becomes president,” Gizem Sedef from Istanbul told Al Jazeera.

Sonuc, the IT consultant, said she believes Erdogan uses religion as a political tool, adding that she is offended by how he and his party members view women.

“Erdogan once said he did not believe men and women are equal. Recently, [Deputy Prime Minister] Bulent Arinc said women should not laugh in public. Another AK Party MP [Ayhan Sefer Ustun] once said [a] rape victim having [an] abortion was worse than the rapist. These all prove their backwards mentality,” Sonuc said.

Ali Ozger, a 28-year-old business owner from Kartal who supports HDP candidate Demirtas, told Al Jazeera: “I don’t believe Erdogan is a democrat. He will do anything for more votes and power.”

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential race, the apparent political and cultural polarisation in Turkey does not seem to be fading soon.

Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras

Source: Al Jazeera