Muharrem Ince: Erdogan rival kindles opposition hopes – is it enough?

18.06.2018

Muharrem Ince, a 54-year-old firebrand lawmaker from Turkey's staunch secularist camp, has breathed new life into the weary opposition ahead of critical elections, drawing massive crowds to his rallies, coloured with selfies, dances and songs on the stage. Ince uses populist rhetoric as equally effectively as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promising to end what he calls the "one-man rule" and to tackle economic problems. An animated character, Ince paces the stage, sharply attacking Erdogan in fiery speeches that take aim at the expensive presidential palace and voicing concerns about stubborn unemployment and a decline in democratic norms.

Ince has served in parliament for 15 years as a member of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and hails from the more nationalist wing of the party. He is renowned for his fiery speeches in parliament and had campaigned against Erdogan's bid to expand presidential powers in a tight referendum last year. The former high school physics teacher, married with one child, comes from the province of Yalova, along the Marmara Sea.

He lost two races against Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the incumbent party leader, in 2014 and 2018.

Ince vows to reduce income disparity, reverse Turkey's brain drain, reform the education system and offer increased rights to minorities, including ethnic Kurds and Alevis. CHP has for many years failed to challenge Erdogan, who still enjoys strong support across the Islamic conservative Anatolian heartland. However, polls suggest that Erdogan, for the first time in his 16-year rule, faces a real challenge.

Erdogan's government, allied with two ultra-nationalist parties, faces the possibility of losing its majority in parliament and the president could face Ince in a run-off on 8 July, surveys show. In the first 40 days of his election campaign, Ince staged more than 70 rallies. Ince, who promises to be a bipartisan president, has that he wants to move the presidential office to symbolic Cankaya Mansion, used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and transform Erdogan's 1,150-room presidential palace in Ankara into an education centre. Ince has also pledged to end polarisation in Turkey's divided society.

He has visited Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed presidential candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in his prison cell. Erdogan calls Demirtas a "terrorist." During a rare midnight rally on 9 June in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, a bastion of the secular voter base, Ince rolled up his sleeves as he kept up his fierce criticism of Erdogan and paced the stage.

He had reached the rally point in Kadikoy after a 2.5-kilometre march that drew mass crowds including everyone from football fan groups to people waving from their balconies ahead of the pre-dawn sahur meal. Ince rode a bike to the stage at one rally and sang, danced and took selfies with the crowd in another. On his way to a rally in the southern province of Osmaniye on May 20, Ince stopped his car, hopped on a tractor and helped a farmer collect the harvest.

"Erdogan is the white Turk. I am the coloured of Turkey. Erdogan is from the palace, I am the poor. Erdogan is the one who puts the headlines on newspapers; I am the man who fights bosses. Erdogan is the status quo supporter, I am the reformer," he told a rally in Istanbul on 6 June.

He then appealed to the key concern in Turkish society: "Why did Erdogan decide for a snap poll? Because an economic crisis is at our doors and he knows it."

"This tired man cannot weather this crisis," he said. "We will go bankrupt. Turkey needs fresh blood."    (dpa)

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