Fairness Makes Charismatic Turkish Presidential Candidate Stand Out #TurkishElections2018
In open-neck white shirt, he strides along the roof of his campaign bus, stabbing the air with his finger as he punctures the president’s policies.
The crowd roars in response. He smiles, raises his hand for silence, cracks a joke, gets a laugh and strides across the roof to charm the crowd on the other side of the square.
This is Muharrem Ince in action, the candidate who began the campaign as a middle-rank politician, predicted to finish third to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the popular female challenger Meral Akshener.
But Ince is doing well. Most polls say he has overtaken Akshener. While he is forecast to poll about 20% less than Erdogan on June 24, he will go on to challenge the president in a run-off on July 8 where he could win if votes are counted honestly.
Ince is generating waves in other ways. He is the first politician to refer to Erdogan’s alleged corruption in an election campaign.
Last month the president called Ince a “poor fellow”. Erdogan was being patronising, but Ince decided to take it literally. At his next rally, Ince told the crowd he preferred to be poor than to be of “dubious wealth.”
He is unusually generous towards his opponents. He has visited each of the five other presidential candidates, including Erdogan, to wish them luck. And he called on the president to release the detained Kurdish challenger, Selahattin Demirtas, so “we can race like men.”
Ince (54) was born in Yalova, a town in north-western Turkey, where he studied at the industrial high school. He graduated from university as a physics teacher, and taught at a local high school for a number of years. He was elected to parliament in 2002 for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the standard-bearer of secular politics in Turkey.
He challenged the CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, for his position twice, and lost. Liberals were pleased as Ince is known as a nationalist. But in April, when Erdogan called elections 17 months early, Kilicdaroglu decided to stand aside and let Ince become the party’s candidate for the presidency.
Since then Ince has won praise from all sectors of the CHP for his tough, no-nonsense approach. His manifesto seeks to dismantle the authoritarian fortress that Erdogan has built.
If elected, Ince would lift the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt of July 2016. He would scrap the presidential system that was narrowly passed last year in a referendum riddled with fraud.
He would reconstitute the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which Erdogan changed to enable him to control the entire judiciary. He would disband the Council of Higher Education, which Erdogan has used to fire rectors and lecturers for political reasons. And he would respect the independence of the Central Bank, which Erdogan has promised to bring under tighter control after the elections.
Last month a spate of reports appeared in the pro-government press suggesting that as president Ince would prosecute Erdogan. The reports were loaded. An estimated 35% of voters adore Erdogann and are not ready to see their hero being humiliated.
Ince responded that he sought only to restore the separation of powers and that if Erdogan’s wealth is to be investigated, the investigation would have to be conducted by an independent judiciary.
For all his talents, Ince faces an uphill battle. Most of the media is controlled by pro-government corporations. His rallies are deliberately under-reported.
He is barnstorming the country to get around this. When The Star followed him last Sunday (May 27), he addressed crowds in Izmir and four towns in western Turkey. He would begin by mocking the shortage of TV crews and urging supporters to film him on their cell phones so they can circulate the speech on social media. Many people did raise their phone-cameras.
His style of speaking is his greatest asset. His sentences are short. He provokes the crowd to respond, and it does. He makes jokes, often at his own expense. He asks a listener how many children he has and turns the answer into a point of argument.
“He talks with the voice of ordinary people. They understand him,” said Nese Celebi, an industrialist who watched him in Kemalpasha, a town of 50 000.
His stabbing the air with a finger, his cajoling the crowd – this is Erdogan’s style. And like Erdogan he tours the lower-income districts. In short, Ince is playing Erdogan at his own game.
But his message is sharply different. “What is special about Ince is his fairness,” continued Celebi. “Fairness is in his blood. Erdogan is always working for his own pocket.”
Erdogan would deny that. And political scientists say that what Erdogan has done to raise the living standards of Turks cannot be denied. It is key to his political success.
However, inflation is now at 11%; unemployment is at 10%; the lira has lost 25% of its value this year, and Moody’s rating agency says growth will be 2.5% this year – down from 7.4%in 2017. Erdogan, like Margaret Thatcher, is in danger of ruining his biggest achievement – the economy.
How much Ince can capitalise on Erdogan’s failures depends ultimately on the fairness of the count. What was most disconcerting about the referendum of April 2017 was not the fraud, but that the Supreme Electoral Council refused to investigate the fraud, ignoring criticism from OSCE monitors and detailed complaints by the opposition. This year the government revised the electoral law to give the SEC even greater control over ballot boxes.
“We are expecting attempts to use fraud in the election as has been the case before,” Ince has said. He claims that effective measures are being taken to ensure the security of ballot boxes and that cheating attempts will be exposed.
However, such words have been heard before, and have failed to move the SEC. There is no appeal against SEC decisions.
Liberals fear that on June 24, as in April 2017, Ince might win the support of the majority but still lose.
Published by The Star of Johannesburg