ISTANBUL: The main rival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s presidential election launched his campaign Thursday, positioning himself as a unifying figure against a dangerously polarizing opponent.
Seeking to make clear the differences between himself and the premier, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is urging voters in the Aug. 10 polls to unite behind him after a turbulent year that saw the country divide between Erdogan’s pious supporters and the secular segments of society.
A veteran diplomat but inexperienced politician, Ihsanoglu has considerable distance to make up on Erdogan, a famously tough campaigner who has already begun holding mass rallies attended by thousands of supporters.
“I am the presidential candidate of all parties. I am not close to one party more than any other. I’ll be the president of everyone: workers, drivers, the youth, the women, the oppressed,” Ihsanoglu told reporters in Istanbul.
“Disrespect hurts everyone in society. That’s why if I am elected president, I will try to heal deep wounds in terms of respecting each other,” he added.
Ihsanoglu criticized the brutal police crackdown against anti-government protesters that sparked last year’s unrest that left eight people dead and thousands injured.
The protests began as a local movement to stop Istanbul’s Gezi Park from being razed but quickly blew up into wider nationwide demonstrations against Erdogan’s perceived authoritarianism.
The premier had branded demonstrators “extremists” and “looters” seeking to topple his government.
“The young people who went to the park on the first day were great patriots. If the government had chosen dialogue over tear gas or sticks, we wouldn’t have experienced so much suffering,” said Ihsanoglu.
“I wouldn’t let anyone describe our youth, whose eyes glisten with love, as ‘looters.’ We need to establish a dialogue with them, not marginalize them,” he added.
Ihsanoglu has also unveiled his campaign logo – a Turkish map represented as a wheat field shaped like a hunk of bread – a traditional symbol of co-existence in Turkey.
“Ekmeleddin, for bread,” reads Ihsanoglu’s campaign slogan, playing in Turkish on the similarity between the candidate’s first name and the Turkish word for bread “Ekmek.”
Born in Cairo to Turkish parents, 70-year-old Ihsanoglu stepped down in December as head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation during a tenure which saw him seek to build bridges between East and West.
The softly spoken intellectual is seen as a reconciliatory and moderate figure, in stark contrast to Erdogan, whose uncompromising stance critics say has left Turkish society more polarized than ever.
A devout Muslim put forward by Turkey’s secular opposition, Ihsanoglu is tasked with winning votes from the ruling AKP’s traditionally pious electorate.
Erdogan has ridiculed Ihsanoglu’s diplomatic background, referring to him as “mon cher” – a French phrase (“my dear” in English) used as a derogatory term in Turkey to describe elitists – and accusing the former envoy of being out of touch with the needs of ordinary voters.
Ihsanoglu will not be helped by his choice of venue to launch his campaign – a former Ottoman palace on the Bosphorus now serving as a luxury hotel.