12 June, 2018 22:03

Erdogan’s Ince Challenge: A Suddenly Competitive Turkish Election

By Emil Sanamyan, USC Institute of Armenian Studies

After dominating Turkish politics for nearly two decades, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing his most serious electoral challenge in the vote set for June 24. Muharrem Ince, the charismatic candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is running a dynamic campaign and gaining in popularity, with recent polls showing support for Ince increasing to over 30 percent.

Erdogan and Ince are not the only candidates in the election. Nationalist candidate Meral Aksener and the imprisoned leader of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtas are also polling about ten percent each. Should Erdogan win less than 50 percent of the vote, resulting in a second round of voting, as now seems likely, Ince could get a further boost from the other opposition constituencies. Also on June 24, Turkey will hold an election for parliament, and in that vote CHP and Aksener’s party are already running on the joint ticket.

Enjoying the powers of incumbency and nearly total control of TV media, Erdogan remains the odds-on favorite. In the last several elections, CHP dominated in western coastal parts of the country, including Istanbul, and it remains to be seen to what extent Ince could make inroads in Turkey’s heartland, where Turkey’s incumbent leader has dominated.

Erdogan called the election early after the Turkish military captured the Afrin enclave in Syria that was previously controlled by Kurdish forces allied with the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. However, sagging economy and Ince’s charisma appear to be muddying Erdogan’s political calculus.

In the still unlikely event that Ince might emerge victorious, how could this change Turkey’s foreign policy? War in Syria is on top of Turkey’s agenda, and Ince has argued for resumption of relations with Syria’s president Bashar Assad, with whom Erdogan has had a personal falling out. Ince promises to improve relations with the European Union, which had been rocky under Erdogan, and resume the push for Turkey’s membership in the EU. Ince has also charged Erdogan with not going far enough in his criticism of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and called for economic sanctions against Israel.

Founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, CHP has a well-established nationalist credentials and associated controversial legacy on minority issues. But Ince himself has not had a notable record on Armenian matters. During the election campaign, Ince has reached out to nationalist, religious and progressive constituencies – including with a visit with Demirtas in prison.

In March 2017, while campaigning against constitutional changes pushed by Erdogan, Ince “thanked” Azerbaijan for showing Turkey how bad a presidential system could get. After referring to Ilham Aliyev’s appointment of his wife as first vice president, Ince said: “They are our true friend, they helped us during Independence War, and now they are helping us see our future; let’s give a big applause to Azerbaijan.”

54-years-old Ince was a high school science teacher before being elected to parliament in 2002. A native of Yalova, south of Istanbul, Ince’s roots are from Thessaloniki and Rize, coincidentally the hometowns of Ataturk and Erdogan’s family, respectively.

Emil Sanamyan lives in Washington DC, and specializes in the politics of the Caucasus.

Photo: huffingtonpost.com