Combative Turkey Secularist Picked to Lead Challenge to Erdogan

(Bloomberg) -- For a Turkish politician dogged by accusations that he downed a beer on a public beach during Ramadan, it was an eye-catching choice of venue to kick off his campaign to be the country’s next president.

Hours after being named the candidate of Turkey’s chief opposition group, the CHP, 54-year-old party veteran Muharrem Ince attended a historic mosque in an ultra-conservative Ankara neighborhood for Friday prayers.

The visit was a symbolic pointer to the scale of Ince’s mission. The secular CHP has never managed to mount a serious challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-oriented AK Party during their almost 16 years at the pinnacle of Turkish politics.

The party is now hoping Ince’s brand of inclusive nationalism will appeal to voters who reject the near-total grip on power Erdogan has achieved even before the June 24 election completes Turkey’s shift from parliamentary democracy to super-charged executive presidency.

“I’m going to be the president of all 80 million people, be it Turks or Kurds, Sunnis or Alevis,” Ince said before heading to the mosque, referring to the ethnic and religious communities that account for nearly the entire population.

And in another dig at Erdogan, who changed the law to enable him to retake the reins of the AK Party once installed in the presidential office, he then handed in his CHP badge. “The president should have no party,” he said.

Four years ago, the CHP picked the former head of a global Islamic organization to compete against Erdogan, in the process upsetting a large chunk of its voter base. It considered other Islamist politicians this year too, before settling on the most combative secularist within its ranks.

Ince has rejected the claim that he was photographed consuming alcohol on Turkey’s Aegean coast during Ramadan -- a taboo in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. He says the photo was taken at another time of the year and that he wasn’t drinking beer. But he has also made another argument -- even if he had done it, it was no one’s business but his own.

If polls are to be believed, Erdogan starts the campaign with a big advantage. A recent survey showed he had 43.5 percent support, more than double that of his nearest rival, former interior minister and now Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener.

‘Word of Honor’

But to secure a first-round victory, Erdogan needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote, something he has usually failed to achieve in past elections. Any run-off contest could be tighter as opposition ballots stack up behind a single challenger.

“I believe I’ll win in the first round,” Ince said in an interview, citing his efforts to appeal to voters other than CHP loyalists. In case his campaign flops, he pledged to support whoever runs against Erdogan if there is a second round.

Ince’s nationalist credentials could bring back CHP supporters who had shifted their allegiance to Aksener, pollsters Ozer Sencar and Hakan Bayrakci said in interviews.

The CHP is traditionally supported by about a quarter of Turkey’s roughly 55 million eligible voters. Ince will be hoping his past positions can win it new friends. Despite being an occasional critic of the pro-Kurdish HDP, for instance, Ince opposed legislation that revoked the party’s lawmakers’ legal immunity and resulted in their imprisonment on charges of ties to the separatist PKK militant group.

“The CHP’s brand of nationalism has never been about ethnicity,” its deputy chief, Bulent Tezcan, said. “Those who want to build peace in society should never discriminate. Ince has spoken strongly in this direction.”

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