Turkish opposition leader vows to defeat Erdogan and 'unite' country

AFP , Saturday 16 Jun 2018

Presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Muharrem Ince arrives in a bus for a campaign rally for the upcoming presidential elections, in his hometown of Yalova on June 15, 2018. (AFP photo)

For a man attempting to sweep away Turkey's long serving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opposition leader Muharrem Ince seems remarkably relaxed just over a week ahead of crucial elections, vowing to be a leader "who unites".

The MP, a former physics teacher, relaxes under the shade of an apple tree in the garden of his family home in the north-western province of Yalova and promises Turkey can change.

"For 16 years, Erdogan has pulled society apart. He polarises, divides. I will be the complete opposite," he says.

Ince, the Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate insists he can appeal to the country's large religious conservative core, confidently saying: "I will be a president who unites."

It is a steep uphill task. The CHP is the party of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and has repeatedly failed to dent Erdogan's appeal to vast swathes of the electorate over the last 15 years. It rarely goes above 25 percent of the electoral vote.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a clear majority of seats in parliament in 2015. And since the failed 2016 coup, rival politicians and journalists have been locked up and tens of thousands of civil servants, academics, police and judges sacked.

But while Erdogan has cemented his dominant status and remains Turkey's most popular politician, polls suggest he is not guaranteed to win the 50 percent of votes necessary to win the presidency outright in the first round.

"Turkey wants to breathe, wants peace, wants serenity... Not an exhausted man, not a man who screams and shouts, (but) someone younger. Fresh blood," says Ince, who at 54 is ten years younger than Erdogan.

Ince hopes to take the vote into a second round and then rally the support of other opposition candidates.

The eventual winner will take charge of a new muscular presidency, including enhanced powers to personally appoint or dismiss ministers and select judges.

Most commentators think Erdogan will find a way to triumph. But if Ince somehow beats the odds, through a combination of withering criticism aimed at Erdogan, campaign rallies and witty social media posts, he insists he would govern "without excluding anyone".

"Veiled or unveiled woman, left or right, Turkish or Kurd, Alevi or Sunni, there is no difference," he says.

Speaking without a tie or jacket, Ince sits beside some Turkish flags hung on the trees around him -- but without the emblem of his party, the CHP.

The symbolism is on purpose and reflects a theatrical gesture made by Ince during his inauguration as presidential candidate in early May, where he removed the CHP badge from his jacket lapel and replaced it with a Turkish flag.

Ince is well aware that he needs to appeal far beyond the CHP's traditional voting base of social democrats and secularists, and win the votes of religious Turks and Kurds.

Turkey's increasingly fragile economy, which saw the country's currency in freefall until the Turkish central bank intervened with a sharp rise in interest rates earlier this month, may help in that regard.

Ince blames Erdogan for overheating the economy and insists that, as president, he would "restore confidence in the markets" to bring down double-digit inflation and calm the fears of foreign investors.

On foreign policy, Ince also portrays himself as a steadying hand.

In the last few years Erdogan has lashed out at NATO, the US, the EU and various EU member states over a variety of issues.

Ince describes Erdogan's comments as "uttering radical statements" and promises to inject "intelligence" into Turkish diplomacy.

But all these promises will amount to nothing if he fails to beat Erdogan on June 24, so what if he loses?

"I'm not going to stop politics, that's for sure," Ince says, smiling. "But I'm convinced I'll be elected, I can see it."

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