ANKARA: The softly spoken, bespectacled intellectual hoping to defeat Turkey’s powerful premier in the country’s first direct presidential election faces a steep uphill struggle.
Egypt-born Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is a former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the global grouping of Muslim nations, and a scholar who makes no secret of his devotion to Islam.
The selection of an overtly pious Muslim may seem a surprising move for the secular opposition, but it reflects the way in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who continues to dominate Turkish politics after 11 years in power — has made it impossible to ignore the religiously conservative majority.
The opposition hopes Ihsanoglu’s calm and professorial demeanour will offer a welcome contrast to Erdogan’s volatile outbursts and polarising style, that have become increasingly evident over the past year as he responds to mass anti-government protests and a torrent of corruption allegations against his inner circle.
Erdogan is expected to formally announce his candidacy on Tuesday for the August elections — the first time the country has directly elected its president.
Ihsanoglu is known as a brilliant intellectual with a doctorate from Ankara University who went on to found Istanbul University’s department of science history, which he headed until 2004.
A respected diplomat during his time as OIC president, he promoted dialogue between Islam and Christianity and has written numerous books.
But his nomination required extensive discussions between the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party, who have often struggled to provide a united front against the Erdogan’s supremacy.
Ihsanoglu’s candidacy proved hugely controversial among the most secular wing of the CHP — the party created by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who made the separation of church and state a cornerstone of the post-Ottoman order in the 1920s and 1930s.
They see Ihsanoglu, whose father hailed from a pious family in the central Anatolia region and opposed of Ataturk’s secularisation drive, as cut from the same cloth as Erdogan. He was born in Cairo in 1943 after his father left Turkey to study in Al-Azhar University.
Ihsanoglu has tried to distance himself from his father’s Islamism, saying he firmly believes in keeping religious beliefs out of politics.
“Today, the main reason for the problems of the Islamic world stem from the association between religion and the affairs of state,” he told reporters last week.
But few believe he can pose a serious challenge to the charismatic Erdogan in the August 10 election, or even force the premier to a second round run-off on August 24.
“Choosing a candidate who shares a similar identity to Erdogan will have the effect of the prime minister being elected in the first round,” said political analyst Taha Erdem, head of the Konda research institute.
Ihsanoglu has indeed been very close to Erdogan’s government in the past — using its support to win his prestigious post as OIC chief.
But he aroused Erdogan’s ire for the supposed “passivity” of the OIC in the face of last year’s coup by the Egyptian military that ousted the elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
A relative novice, he is expected to struggle to make headway against a political beast such as Erdogan and the hugely powerful AKP campaigning machine.
But the opposition remains confident it has found an ideal candidate.
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