Who's got İhsanoğlu-mania?!?

June 17, 2014
The opposition parties in Turkey have chosen a presidential candidate: it's Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu!

Who? What?  
The first round of the election will be on August 10, and will proceed to a second round if no one wins more than 50% of the vote. While Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has not yet formally declared himself a candidate, pretty much everyone expects him to run--and win. 


In recent decades, the presidency in Turkey has generally been an honorary position elected by parliament. However, the ruling AK Party is planning to amend the constitution in order to change the powers of the president and prime minister, with the presidential position becoming considerably stronger.

But while the presidency is now being transformed into an elected position, no one is entirely clear on what exact powers the person winning this year's election will be entitled to.

That, I suppose, depends on who wins. This is what Deputy PM Bulent Arınç had to say about things:

“Let’s suppose that our honorable prime minister becomes president [in the August 2014 elections] and his party [the AKP] wins the 2015 [parliamentary] elections in a way that would bring 367 seats, then the AKP would definitely make a constitutional amendment on its own and may carry out the transition to one of the presidential systems via a constitutional amendment,” Arınç said.

Turkey’s Parliament holds 550 seats. A minimum of 330 votes are required for a constitutional change, while any motion accepted with between 330 and 367 votes goes directly to a referendum. The total number of seats currently occupied by the AKP is 313.

In response to a question, Arınç made clear that what he has been speaking of was not about holding a new presidential election shortly after August 2014. The issue is about the president’s authority, Arınç said and added: “That is to say, it may turn into a concept that would require a review of the president’s relations with the executive body, the legislative body’s relations and the judiciary’s relations. This is not an unreasonable possibility.”

My guess is that if current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan wins, the presidency will indeed become a stronger position, but not if he loses. Of course, a lot depends on what happens with the next parliamentary elections. My assumption in this regard is that the AK Party would still hold the largest number of seats in the parliament, though I think it's doubtful that they'll be able to increase their number to the extent that they could make amendments without having to include members of other parties.

Indeed, if the election news doesn't look good for the AK Party, you might see them pushing for constitutional amendments before the next election. But again, it depends on who wins the presidency this summer.


And now, the two main opposition parties--the Kemalist CHP (Republican People's Party) and the right wing/nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party)--have decided on a joint candidate!

Ready...it's....one more time...

Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu!!!

Hi! I'm Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu


Does Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu have a chance? I'd frankly never heard of the guy until this week. Apparently, he was born in Cairo, and he's written and edited a number of studies on Ottoman science, the Turks of Egypt, and other subjects. Here is his website
Hürriyet Daily Bugler columnist Murat Yetkin seems to like what he sees. He calls Ihsanoglu's selection 'a smart choice' by the Turkish opposition. This is what he has to say:

For many, İhsanoğlu as the CHP’s choice was a surprise. It breaks some taboos for the secularist and social democratic CHP to decide that the former head of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should be the next president.

But at a closer look, one can see a smart tactical calculation behind the move, for a number of reasons:

1- The first one to come up with the concept of a joint candidate was Bahçeli of the MHP. He had said that such a candidate should be patriotic, conservative, democratic, secularist and with high moral values.

2- At that point, the CHP was considering coming up with its own candidate. But in time Kılıçdaroğlu came to the conclusion that with only a CHP candidate it would not be possible to expand its own voter base, but with a non-partisan, respected name there would be such a possibility. This had been tested with a former MHP candidate like Mansur Yavaş, who the CHP nominated for the Ankara mayoral position, expanding its vote base in Ankara despite losing the race by a close margin.

3- The CHP had one other criteria in addition to that of the MHP. Kılıçdaroğlu had made an open call to the Kurdish problem-focused Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – now transforming into the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) - to support the CHP’s candidate in the presidentials.

4- The BDP, which shares the same grassroots as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is in negotiations with the government for a political settlement to the long-running Kurdish problem, has already been planning to force PM Erdoğan into bargaining over Kurdish autonomy and the release of the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in return for presidential support. Despite getting nearly 45 percent of the votes in the March 30 local elections, Erdoğan will need 50 percent plus one vote in the first round. The CHP is clearly seeking to give an option to Kurdish votes if Erdoğan does not meet their demands.

5- The answer came from Selahattin Demirtaş of the BDP, who said their support “in the second round” on Aug. 24 was not out of the question if the CHP presents a candidate who "respects the rights of all peoples."

6- In addition to all those factors, İhsanoğlu is a name from the AK Parti’s backyard. With the proposal of the Erdoğan government (and when President Abdullah Gül was still serving as foreign minister) İhsanoğlu was elected as Secretary General for the Islamic Cooperation, the second biggest international organization after the U.N. and served for nine years there, starting from late 2004. This had been a success story for Erdoğan until the coup in Egypt in June 2013. Erdoğan asked İhsanoğlu (since he is a Turkish citizen, yet born and raised in Cairo) to condemn Egypt and implement punitive measures. But as the OIC representative, İhsanoğlu refrained from doing so and stayed loyal to OIC decisions.

Wow! I think someone's got a pretty bad case of İhsanoğlumania...
Looks like the newly-announced candidate is starting
to attract some belieğbers...

Over at Today's Zaman, meanwhile, the tone was a little more reserved. Columnist Joost Lagendijk of Morning Joost makes the following points:
First, the fact that the CHP and the MHP managed to agree on one contender will mean that the race for the presidency is not a done-deal from the start. A divided opposition with no chance of winning would have been the ideal scenario for the ruling party, but it would be a recipe for disaster for all those who don't want the AKP to win.

Second, considering his background and qualities, İhsanoğlu should be able do to what is absolutely necessary to beat the AKP candidate: Convince conservative voters that there is a genuine alternative. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu praised İhsanoğlu for his respectability and righteousness; many commentators described the former OIC leader as a modest and decent personality, an experienced diplomat and a reputable intellectual. In other words: someone able to unite the country instead of dividing it.

The question is, however, whether this smart move will be enough to have İhsanoğlu elected? To be honest, I have my doubts. To begin with, I have no idea what İhsanoğlu stands for. Till he presents his project for Turkey, many will be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that won't be enough to beat the outspoken prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, assuming he will run for the AKP.

The Joost makes some good points here--especially the last one: no one really has any idea what İhsanoğlu stands for right now. If Erdoğan does run for president, expect him to get to work filling in those blanks for the opposition candidate as quickly as possible.

To be honest, İhsanoğlu strikes me as a classic choice by committee--someone who doesn't really excite anyone, but who doesn't stand out so much that people would make a point of going out of their way to sink his candidacy. Hey wait a second, I was hired by a committee...Well, on second thought, some committee choices can end up looking pretty darn great, uh...right? 

İhsanoğlu was, in fact, a compromise candidate between the CHP and the MHP. They claimed to have consulted a number of other groups as well.

In the words of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu:
“We are proposing a name who will be accepted by everybody and who will set a model for everybody with his reputation, honesty, knowledge and experience: Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu,” Kılıçdaroğlu told reporters as he made a joint statement with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli following their meeting at Parliament.
For his part, Bahçeli described İhsanoğlu’s nomination as “a fortunate step,” suggesting that their efforts for nominating a joint candidate should be considered as “a move beyond political parties.” The MHP leader was apparently referring to his and Kılıçdaroğlu’s consultations with civil society organizations and representatives of various segments of society before making a decision on a candidate.
A number of people in the CHP were upset by the choice:

Hüseyin Aygün, the CHP’s Tunceli deputy, complained through his Twitter account that the party should have nominated “a leftist candidate” for the post.

CHP Istanbul deputy Nur Serter, meanwhile, criticized the party leadership for İhsanoğlu’s appointment, stressing that he “did not represent” the CHP. “I am in deep sorrow and shame. A dagger has been stabbed into the heart of the CHP. We will evaluate what we will do with our friends,” she told daily Hürriyet. Serter is a representative of the party’s Kemalist faction, staunchly loyal to secular and republican views.
Presumably, İhsanoğlu was chosen because the opposition party leaders think he will appeal to more conservative voters. He is, after all a graduate of Cairo's al-Azhar University, which has a well-known school of Islamic jurisprudence even though Ihanoglu's degree from the institution was an MSc in Chemistry. İhsanoğlu's former role as head of the OIC at least separates him from the hard-line secularist roots of much of the opposition (particularly the CHP), while his scholarly background should be enough to nevertheless reassure most self-identifying secularist voters.
Perhaps the opposition leaders also felt that İhsanoğlu's apparently calm manner would also contrast well with that of Erdogan's never-ending drama. They might be right in that regard.    
All in all, I wonder what sort of message we should be taking from İhsanoğlu's candidacy. Putting up a lifelong bureaucrat and academic as a presidential candidate against a political pro like Erdogan seems an awful lot like leading sheep to the slaughter. Obviously no one knows how exactly the election will play out--and recent developments in Turkey's southeast and Iraq could prove troublesome for Erdogan--but still: is the opposition even trying to win this election?
Who knows? Maybe voters will find İhsanoğlu a refreshing contrast to Erdoğan. He's also probably a much better candidate than the vast majority of professional politicians that the opposition could have chosen, so maybe the choice will prove to be a good one. And he speaks five languages. And he's a university professor!

Any hey, it's nice to see a professor get nominated for a big-time position for once! If all else fails, they can use Jody Kramer's words of wisdom as a campaign slogan. It just might work.

So a committee-chosen candidate might be the key: we know you'll lose, but at least you'll look good in defeat. Given the intellectual poverty of Turkey's main opposition parties, even a losing candidate who makes a good show of things would, of course, be preferable to a disastrous one. This would be the lowest common denominator scenario, whereby Ihsanoglu was chosen because no one could think of anyone better that both the CHP and MHP would agree upon.

Which is probably what happened. But that doesn't mean Ihsanoglu can't be a good candidate. Who knows? As Morning Joost sez, we hardly know anything about this person. He's dealing with a political pro who's not afraid to get down and dirty.

We'll see if İhsanoğlumania takes off. And if it does, how far it flies...

The AKP and the Presidency

Either way, I don't see Tayyip Erdoğan leaving the political controls in Turkey anytime soon. Assuming he runs for president, he'll likely win, and even if he doesn't win the parliament (which his AK Party controls) still has the power to regulate the actual powers of the president.

But if Erdoğan somehow loses a presidential election (assuming he runs), what impact might that have on a parliamentary career, if he chose to continue as Prime Minister? Is it possible that Erdogan's political tactics, while resulting in sufficient support to win a parliamentary campaign, might not have the support to win over 50% of the vote in a straight-up head-to-head campaign against someone? In the municipal elections of March of this year, the AK Party was the big winner with 43% of the vote.

So the opposition, by running a single candidate and making it someone who is seen as attractive to traditional/religious voters, is hoping they can peel away every single voter who isn't strongly AKP. Who knows? Maybe they'll manage it--a lot will depend on how Ihsanoglu responds to what will be an incredible challenge for him. 
Unlike İhsanoğlu, Erdoğan is an actual politician, someone who has decades of experience connecting with ordinary people in a way that most Turkish politicians can't come close to matching. If İhsanoğlu gains traction, Erdoğan will go after him, hard.
Don't expect RTE to go easy on the competition  

But lately, Erdoğan has appeared to be his own worst enemy. By going after adversaries in such over-the-top ways, he creates far more opposition to his government than his actual policymaking has ever attracted. Gezi Park was one example of this--people responded as much to the use of force to clear the park on May 31, as the park itself. He did the same thing with the Gulenists--with all of the construction projects taking place in Turkey, how is it possible that there wasn't enough cake to divide among everyone? While Erdoğan appears to have won that fight, it still resulted in considerable damage to his party and reputation that was, like Gezi, 100% avoidable.
And then, look at Soma.
Presidential aide Yusuf Yerkel putting his best foot forward at Soma

On some occasions, like during his recent speech in Cologne, Erdoğan is still a talented speaker. He appeals to what must, I think, constitute a real sense in people's hearts that he's speaking for them. Lately, however, the guy is just a car wreck waiting to happen.
Who are you, Dude?
My gut feeling, however, is that someone like İhsanoğlu, who has spent his entire career in bureaucratic institutions like universities and intergovernmental organizations, might end up feeling pretty outmatched once an actual campaign is underway. 
Define yourself, dude...


What İhsanoğlu will need to do first of all is define himself in real, positive terms. It probably won't be enough to just be against Erdogan. Is it possible for someone who has worked in bureaucratic institutions for most of his career, someone who does appear to have been a committee choice, a compromise, to actually come up with a compelling vision that can compete with that of Tayyip Erdogan? I guess we'll find out.
Who is this man of mystery?

If not, the only way the opposition will win will be through unexpected circumstances--such as the economy melting down or a crisis heating up such as in Iraq or southeastern Turkey--or through Tayyip Erdogan handing it to them by melting down in public. I wouldn't put it past him.
I have no idea which of the above possibilities is most likely, although a public meltdown by one of the candidates would no doubt be interesting television. A presidential election is something new to Turkey, and it'll be interesting to see how things play out.

For starters, I guess we'll need at least one more candidate.  

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