|Turkish Presidential Candidate |
Muharrem Ince, rattling Erdogan's base
After 16 years of electoral dominance by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party, known as the C.H.P., has found a leader and presidential candidate who is rattling Mr. Erdogan, invigorating opposition voters and reaching out to Turks beyond the traditional base of his party.
The murmurs are increasingly audible that Mr. Erdogan may not be invincible when Turkey votes on June 24. The politician who achieved this transformation in the national mood is Muharrem Ince, a 54-year-old legislator from the C.H.P., who was chosen as the presidential candidate by his party in May. Mr. Ince has represented Yalova, a province about 50 miles from Istanbul, in the Turkish parliament since 2002. His father was a small farmer. Mr. Ince taught physics at a school before entering politics.
I got to know Mr. Ince while serving as a member of parliament for the C.H.P. from Istanbul. His speeches in the parliament went viral on Turkish social media; his humor inspired caricatures and memes, skewering the opponents. In the past month of campaigning, Mr. Ince’s witty and pugnacious speeches challenging Mr. Erdogan at public meetings have inspired the Turks.
I recently attended a public meeting Mr. Ince was having in Duzce, a city on the Black Sea coast, which has elected Justice and Development Party candidates in every parliamentary election since Mr. Erdogan founded the party in 2002. Politicians from the secularist C.H.P. would face active hostility — even assault, once — when visiting Duzce. I was surprised to see about 5,000 people waiting to hear Mr. Ince. It was a signifier that he was not preaching to the converted.
A young man I met described himself as a supporter of Mr. Erdogan’s party, but he was curious about Mr. Ince. He spoke about how the people of his city were losing their once-ardent faith in Mr. Erdogan’s party. “Nobody believes them any longer,” he said. “Even at the meetings where they distribute alms, they seal off their seating area to separate themselves from the poor.”
Yet not voting for Mr. Erdogan and his party wasn’t a choice. “Last month, the imam of our village asked all of us to put our hands on the Quran and take an oath to vote for our party,” the young man said. He wouldn’t break his oath but came to agree with the opposition leader’s message.
Mr. Ince is asking the people of Turkey to choose between freedom and fear, between national prestige and national solitude, between imposition of religious practice and freedom to choose, between openness and xenophobia.
Mr. Ince has been challenging President Erdogan for a public debate. “Let us debate on any television network you choose,” he says. The loquacious Mr. Erdogan, who is omnipresent on Turkish television, stayed quiet until Saturday, when he responded with characteristic haughtiness. “He has no shame, inviting me on television,” Mr. Erdogan said, adding that Mr. Ince would try to “ get ratings thanks to us.” Mr. Ince retorted, “He says I want to get ratings, but even the weather forecasts are watched more than his interviews.”
In May, in a speech in the parliament, Mr. Erdogan tried to dismiss Mr. Ince as “a poor person.” The opposition leader responded by asking an important question: “We got the same salary at the same time. How come you became so rich and I am poor?” (Mr. Erdogan’s salary as prime minister between 2003 and 2014 wasn’t a lot more than what members of parliament received. As president he gets paid three times more, but Mr. Ince was referring to the corruption charges against his inner circle.)
Under Mr. Erdogan, polarization between social and ethnic groups has increased in the past several years. His challenger is offering the vision of reconciliation and an end to discriminatory hiring practices by the Turkish state. “The state will have no business if a candidate is Alevi or Sunni, Turkish or Kurdish,” Mr. Ince said at a public meeting last week. “There will be no discrimination whether one is wearing head scarf or not, whether one is a woman or a man.”
Mr. Ince is also changing the misconception that his secularist party’s base is anti-religious by appearing at public rallies with his sister who wears a head scarf. He stood up against the relentless propaganda by the A.K.P. against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, and visited its leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas in prison.
The recent fall in the value of the lira exacerbated economic anxieties in the country. Mr. Ince has offered the vision of strengthening a production-based economy, developing agriculture and offering better conditions for local and foreign investors, apart from educating Turkish youth in both their mother tongue and global languages to compete with the world.
Mr. Ince provided examples of moral leadership long before he was in the fray. In the summer of 2016, the Turkish parliament approved a constitutional amendment stripping its members of immunity from prosecution. The bill was pushed by the governing A.K.P. and its ultranationalist allies to target the members from the Peoples’ Democratic Party.
During the parliamentary debates on the regressive changes in education pushed by the A.K.P., Mr. Ince called out the party’s hypocrisy by disclosing that A.K.P. elites were not sending their children to the Imam Hatip (religious) public schools, which they deem appropriate for the rest of society. He also pointed out that although the A.K.P. embroiled the country in wars and whipped up hysteric nationalism, its leaders were not enlisting their sons in military service.
Turks seem to be embracing his slogan of “Making Peace, Growing and Sharing Together.” In late April, the C.H.P. vote share, according to independent polls, was about 20 percent. Within a few weeks of Mr. Ince’s presidential campaign, the C.H.P. vote share has increased to 30 percent.
And with the opposition parties coming together, Mr. Erdogan’s time might finally be running out. But nobody knows which rabbit Mr. Erdogan and his team will pull out of their hats before the polling day.
But the shift in the national mood is evident on the streets, on the usually obsequious television networks, in the tea shops across the country. For the first time in almost two decades, Mr. Erdogan no longer seems invincible. A Turkey where every citizen may live without fear finally seems possible.
Note EU-Digest: A Turkish American citizen who was asked what he thought about the possibility of Muharrem Ince toppling Erdogan answered: "well better the devil you know than the devil you don't.know".
If everyone had that similar opinion about dictators in power, many would never have been toppled.
Hopefully this fresh wind, which is presently blowing through Turkey in the form of Muharrem Ince candicacy in the Turkish Presidential elections will give the Turks the courage to vote in large numbers for the next President of Turkey: Muharrem Ince