Turkey’s Schizophrenic Opposition Unlikely to Defeat Erdogan and Unified AKP

As Turkey prepares for its first direct presidential election, its two main secular opposition parties, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have jointly nominated Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, the former secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), as their candidate. Ihsanoglu, a religious conservative, will run against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the heavy favorite from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party, a political party with links to the Kurdish-dominated Peace and Democracy Party.

Ihsanoglu appears to have been chosen to compete with Erdogan in Turkey’s more conservative Anatolian districts, rather than appeal solely to the CHP’s more secular strongholds on the Aegean coast. The choice suggests that both opposition parties recognize how the conservative, religious majority of Turkey’s electorate has bristled under many of Turkey’s illiberal secular laws.

But even Ihsanoglu’s history at the OIC does not guarantee success with Turkish conservatives. The pro-government media has indirectly called his piety into question after a photograph of him with his family revealed that, contrary to Turkish custom, Ihsanoglu wears his shoes indoors. While seemingly innocuous, the photograph is intended to cast Ihsanoglu as a “fake Muslim” with secular Kemalist roots who represents the “old Turkey.” The AKP, in contrast, has sought to brand itself as the party that represents the “new Turkey.” It is a distinction that resonates in Turkish politics, one that the AKP has often invoked to great effect during its years in office.

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