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Turkish opposition contender Ince threatens to split anti-Erdogan vote

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Muharrem Ince is best remembered outside Turkey for his spirited campaign against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018’s presidential polls. Ahead of May 14 elections, Turkey’s six main opposition parties have united behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu – and Ince’s candidacy threatens to split the anti-Erdogan vote. 

The big story of the 2018 Turkish presidential elections was that many Western observers thought Muharrem Ince’s energetic campaign would force Erdogan into a second-round run-off – but the wily Turkish president was re-elected in the first round with 52 percent of the vote while Ince garnered just 30 percent.

Back then, Ince was the candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP). But this time around the CHP chose Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its standard-bearer in the contest against Erdogan – and, anxious to avoid a split vote, Turkey’s five other main opposition parties put aside their differences to rally around him as part of the Nation Alliance. Even the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third force in Turkish politics, has endorsed Kilicdaroglu

>> Read more: Tempest in a teashop: Turks bitterly divided in Erdogan stronghold ahead of presidential vote

But Ince, a former secondary school physics teacher, is standing for the Turkish presidency anyway – provoking chagrin among many in the Turkish opposition.

“The opposition has united behind Kilicdaroglu, so now it takes a dim view of Ince’s candidacy because it jeopardises the possibility of a first-round victory against Erdogan,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“It’s in Erdogan’s interest to see Ince perform well.”

‘Divisive for the Turkish opposition’

That creates a real challenge for Kilicdaroglu, who held a meeting  to no avail – with Ince after the latter announced his presidential candidacy under the banner of the Homeland Party he founded in 2021. 

“The very existence of Ince’s candidacy is divisive for the Turkish opposition,” said Didier Billion, a Turkey specialist and deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris.

>> Read more: In epicentre of Turkey quakes, survivors are indifferent to upcoming polls

Analysts expect the elections to be close. Turkey has been reeling since 2018 from an inflation crisis caused in large part by Erdogan’s defiance of economic orthodoxy. The president has also faced criticism over his handling of the earthquakes in February, and questions have been raised about his health since he cancelled campaigned appearances in late April after falling ill during a live TV interview. Yet on the other hand, Erdogan is a gifted political animal who has long enjoyed a strong base consisting of socially conservative voters in the Anatolian heartland. 

Kilicdaroglu’s combination of a soft-spoken style and reformist credentials have burnished his standing against Erdogan – but Ince has a particular appeal for first-time voters.

>> Read more: Will Turkey’s inflation crisis damage Erdogan’s re-election chances?

At 59, Ince is noticably younger than Erdogan, 69, as well as the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu.

“Forty percent of Ince’s supporters are first-time voters,” Cagaptay said, describing the candidate’s brand as “neither left nor right, with a centrist-populist style that plays well among young voters”.

Indeed, 5.2 million young Turks are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time on May 14 – some 8 percent of the electorate.

But while Ince will “carry weight” in these elections, “he doesn’t have a realistic chance of victory; he doesn’t have anything like the level of support he had in 2018”, Billion said. Ince’s biggest problem is that “people haven’t heard from him much since the 2018 polls; he hasn’t made much of an imprint in Turkish politics over the last five years”.

However, in these knife-edge elections, Ince has a fair chance of kyboshing the opposition’s prospects – even if he polls badly.

“At the start of the campaign he was polling around 15 percent and now he’s at 4 to 6 percent, but that’s still significant,” Cagaptay concluded. “Ince loves the attention and he’s had quite a lot of it – so he’s going to stay in the race. We’ll see if he ends up acting as a spoiler or not.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

This story originally appeared on France24

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