Dimitris Rapidis

In August 10, Turkey holds its presidential election. This is the first time in the political history of the country that the President is going to be elected directly by the electorate, and not through the internal vote of the Parliament. Meantime, this election brings something new in the political landscape of Turkey: the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, endorsed by five opposition parties, to compete Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Is he going to challenge Turkey’s PM with success or is İhsanoğlu candidacy the critical element of a wider project?

Erdoğan has declared as priority the constitutional amendment and the increase of executive powers of the President, which is literally interpreted as the shift from a parliamentary regime to a presidential one. In a broader perspective, this priority resembles the one Russian President Vladimir Putin put on track when he jumped from President to PM and back, wishing to keep his legacy and power intact throughout his statesmanship. Before the candidacy of İhsanoğlu, the presidential election of August seemed shallow-drifted as Erdoğan was expected to bring about another landslide.

The profile of İhsanoğlu

The 70-year old diplomat became known in the Arabic world after his tenure in the general secretariat of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Prescribed as a modest Islamist, born in Cairo, well-aware of the geopolitical balances in the Middle East, a strong lobbyist and effective technocrat so far, İhsanoğlu has preserved a low profile for himself, being almost unknown in the Turkish public – as well as among the Turkish political leadership. However, his candidacy is endorsed by five parties of the opposition, among which CHP and MHP, a fact that inevitably brings him in the center of the attention for the foreign media. His candidacy was based on some critical and qualitative elements that compose the Kemalist tradition in Turkey: İhsanoğlu strongly advocates for a secular state in Turkey, acknowledging the firm position of the army and the judicial corps in decision-making, and maintaining strong ties with the Western world, and especially with the United States.

In addition to that, he has also being networking with Saudi Arabia, being considered as a modest Islamist and a balancing figure between extreme Westernization and Islamism. In this respect, İhsanoğlu was also a founding member of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, established in the 1980s in Istanbul. The fundamental aim of the Centre was to build on the effective balance between the secular character of the Turkish democracy and the inner Islamic character of the Turkish culture; in other words, to create the necessary foundations for Turkey to increase its pivotal position in the Western world and at the same time in the Islamic world. All five parties have stressed out that his candidacy can pull a significant part of Erdoğan’s electorate, bidding on the fact that İhsanoğlu is intended to unveil crucial issues like religious freedom, social freedom and gender equality, while addressing the demands and unrest of a large part of the Turkish public in the urban centres that are accusing Erdoğan for being an authoritative leader (i.e. Gezi Park; Twitter shutdown, amongst other issues).

In front of a tough reality

Despite rumors for the support by Fethullah Gülen, one of the biggest burdens that İhsanoğlu has to deal with is the fact that he is completely unknown in the Turkish public. Even the President of CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, told in the media a couple of weeks ago that he did not know him before his being selected as a joint candidate. Media networks inclined to the opposition are making a great effort to shape his profile and make him known to the public, but time is pressing. However, the selection of İhsanoğlu may have a broader reference to the forthcoming general elections in 2015, turning his candidacy for the Presidency a crash-test so that both himself and the opposition can count their leverage and power.

Another issue we need to point out with reference to the presidential election is the shift of politics in Turkey towards conservatism, having this applied into the wider political spectrum. This conclusion stems from the fact that the ideological platform of CHP has been considerably affected with respect to İhsanoğlu. Someone could wonder why the opposition did not choose a political figure that is more recognizable, and being more attached to the secular ideology that CHP represents. Another question would be why the opposition did not manage these 12 years of Erdoğan’s rule to prepare a solid sting of counter-policy proposals, especially in the field of media, youth, or the Kurds for instance. At the end of the day, for the Europeans it has always been hard to interpret Turkish politics and society, as it is truly an amalgam of conflicting yet extremely interested mixture of religious and power balance, social and economic development, regional assertiveness, multicultural growth, and way too prolific and inspiring comparing to what we experience in our western standardized frameworks.

Bridging Europe and JEF Turkey

Regardless of the political developments in August, Bridging Europe and JEF Turkey launched a couple of days ago a common project called “EU-Turkey Dialogue Initiative“, destined to enrich the exchange of different perceptions with respect to the Turkish society. Beginning from September 2014, these organizations are going to unveil a series of issues, ranging from cultural development, human rights, youth mobilization, and gender equality, topics that are not well-developed and often elaborated at the sidelines of the current political debate. However difficult is to predict whether Turkey is going to become or not a full member-state of the European Union, we both consider that knowing better what are the developments in our common topics of reference could definitely bring us closer, building on mutual understanding, especially for the younger generation.

You are all invited to read the PRESS RELEASE, available in English, Turkish, and Greek, and bring your ideas and proposals into surface.

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