ANKARA: The main Turkish opposition candidate for president stressed the need to keep religion out of politics Thursday and called for national unity, a clear challenge to the divisive but popular Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who looks set to win.
Erdogan, a founder of the ruling AK Party that has roots in Islamist politics, is expected to announce his candidacy next week, and polls suggest he will win outright on Aug. 10 when Turks directly elect their president for the first time.
The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) last week named Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as their candidate, hoping to unite opposition to Erdogan, who remains widely popular despite alienating sections of society with his conservative agenda and aggressive style.
“We seek not a polarized, confrontational Turkey but a peaceful Turkey,” Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old diplomat and academic, told reporters in Ankara in his first statement since his candidacy was announced.
“We want to stress that all who have lived here together for centuries and all the values which make us what we are ... constitute our common cultural heritage.”
Ihsanoglu stepped down as head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in December and his nomination is seen as an attempt to eat into Erdogan’s conservative religious voter base. Ihsanoglu tried to reassure millions of secular Turks who accuse Erdogan of overseeing creeping Islamization of the state.
“Religion and politics should be kept separate. One of the problematic issues for the Islamic world is that religion and politics are mixed up.”
Whether Ihsanoglu can beat Erdogan is another matter. A poll published Thursday showed the prime minister with a 20 point lead, should he decide to run.
A poll by Genar predicted Erdogan would win 55.2 percent of the vote, with Ihsanoglu on 35.8 percent. It put Selahattin Demirtas, the expected candidate for Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, on less than 10 percent.
If Erdogan assumes the presidency, he is expected to exercise existing presidential powers to a much greater extent than incumbent President Abdullah Gul, whose role over the past seven years has been largely ceremonial.