ISTANBUL: Turkey’s two main secular opposition parties Sunday formally backed a devout Muslim to challenge an expected bid for the presidency by the country’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads an Islamic-rooted party.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) submitted a joint application to parliament to nominate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an academic and career diplomat, as their candidate in August presidential elections.
In a televised meeting with Parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek, senior opposition lawmakers submitted the signatures making Ihsanoglu the first candidate to formally enter the race.
Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) traces its roots to political Islam, is widely expected to be unveiled Tuesday as the AKP candidate for Turkey’s first democratic presidential vote on August 10. Incumbent President Abdullah Gul said he would not seek a second term, further raising the likelihood that Erdogan will run.
The opposition delivered a big surprise earlier this month by nominating Ihsanoglu, a little-known devout Muslim tasked with wooing the traditionally pious AKP supporters.
The decision to back a political novice, seen by many as conservative and Islamic-leaning, alarmed secular segments of the society, who accuse Erdogan of forcing Islamic values on the predominantly Muslim country.
But Ihsanoglu stressed the need to “keep religion out of politics.”
Twenty-one lawmakers from the CHP refused to sign, while ultra-nationalist MHP’s lawmakers gave Ihsanoglu their full backing.
Born in Cairo to Turkish parents, 70-year-old Ihsanoglu stepped down in December as head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and served as an envoy to Bosnia and Gambia in a long diplomatic career.
He 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.
But Erdogan remains Turkey’s most popular leader, with polls suggesting that he will win outright in the first round.