The Former Physics Teacher Who's Energized Turkey's Opposition

(Bloomberg) -- Regardless of what happens in Turkey’s elections on Sunday, a former physics teacher has done what many thought was impossible: breathe some life into Turkey’s opposition.

Muharrem Ince emerged as a surprise threat to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: energizing supporters across the political spectrum, rallying millions in Turkey’s cities, and putting the incumbent on the defensive. If nothing else, his rise is a balm to the secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, which was founded in 1919 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and has suffered a long string of defeats under its mild-mannered leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, as Erdogan tightened his grip.

The Former Physics Teacher Who's Energized Turkey's Opposition

That’s an accomplishment for a candidate who’s suffered under a partial blackout in a country with some of the worst press freedom rankings among major democracies. When Ince rallied millions in Istanbul on the last day of his campaign, a taxi driver trying to find his speech on the radio erupted in anger as he switched through news stations, all of them broadcasting Erdogan speaking at a much smaller event in the same city. Erdogan falsely claimed in that speech that Ince hadn’t even managed to rally 500 people.

“I’m more excited for this election than I have been for any vote since I was 18,” said 38-year-old Cigdem Akin after she cast her vote in Ankara.

‘In the Blood’

Coskun, a 30-year-old accountant who like many opposition voters refused to give his last name, said Ince had motivated CHP supporters like him for the first time.

“I’ve always voted CHP - it’s in the family’s blood,” he said. But this is the first campaign he’d ever been drawn to attend a political rally.

Ince, 54, has served in parliament since 2002, when he was 38, representing the spa town of Yalova on the Marmara Sea. He graduated from Uludag University in physics and chemistry and worked as a physics teacher and principal before entering politics. Earlier this year, he failed in his challenge for the party leadership. Still, Kilicdaroglu selected him as the party’s presidential candidate in May.

Economic Troubles

Ince is also riding a wave of discontent over Turkey’s economy, with a majority of Turks saying it’s the top issue in the campaign, according to pre-election polls. For much of the Erdogan era, Turkey’s economy has boomed. But now, with the lira tumbling more than 20 percent in the past year and inflation last clocked at 12 percent, many Turks are feeling financial pressures.

“There’s definitely a feeling of weariness,” said Mehmet, a 57-year-old who runs a car-parts company and also asked not to give his last name. The currency slump is “definitely a factor in the election: people who look around a little bit, who know something about the world, can see things are bad. But of course if you sit at home all day and watch only A-Haber, you’re never going to know,” he said, referring to the pro-government channel run by members of Erdogan’s family.

Ince polls significantly higher than his party but with four opposition leaders splitting the anti-Erdogan vote, he’s highly unlikely to win in the first round, where a candidate needs 50 percent. Yet regardless of the result, the status quo had lost, he says. Should no candidate receive 50 percent, a run-off will be held on July 8, with Ince the likely contender against Erdogan.

“The era of winning elections by trickery and fraud is over,” Ince said in a post to his 4.5 million followers on Twitter. “I’ll risk my life to defend your vote, and we’re going to succeed.”

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