The Muharrem Ince phenomenon

When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partner—the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)—called for early elections, they thought victory was assured. After moving Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections forwards a year and a half, to June 24 with only 60 days notice, they expected opposition parties would struggle to unite in a rival coalition and fail to field a presidential candidate capable of posing a threat to President Erdoğan’s 16-year tenure in power.

The Muharrem Ince phenomenon, however, has forced them to revise their expectations of an easy victory. Muharrem Ince was put forwards as the presidential candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and has animated and mobilised crowds in ways no opposition candidate has been able to do since President Erdoğan ascended to power.

Polls show not only that Ince will make it to a second round run off election—triggered if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote for the presidency—but also that the AKP-MHP coalition will lose control of Parliament. But how has Ince been able to create such a broad wave of enthusiasm in such a short period of time?

First and foremost, Ince’s good-humored nature has differentiated him from the polarizing, antagonistic rhetoric that has characterized Turkish politics of late. Soon after his candidacy was announced, he visited every one of his opponents, including his main rival President Erdoğan and jailed Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtaş, and donated 500 TL to each of their campaigns in a demonstration of conciliation and fraternity. The public has also responded positively to the natural, comfortable way he has performed cultural activities such as reading poems, folk dancing, and riding tractors. He has swiftly become a Twitter phenomenon. One of my follows wrote: “He rides horses, he drives trucks and bicycles, he dances the zeybek, and on top of all of that, he writes and performs his own poetry. What more could we have asked for?”

As I write this piece, I see 880 tweets have been posted about him in the last hour. When he goes on television talk shows, Twitter explodes. His quick wit and intelligence, and his humor—which elevates people’s spirits and dispels their fears—produce record ratings. In short, for the first time, President Erdoğan is facing a challenger with popularity levels that rival his own. There now exists a candidate whose dynamism and relatability are highlighting the atrophy that 16 years in power have wrought in Erdoğan and the AKP. Ince has held 74 rallies across the country in 34 days. He holds two, sometimes three rallies a day—often at midnight. One of my Twitter followers abroad wrote: “Thanks to [Ince’s rallies], for the first time in years, I could almost smell the soil of my homeland.” The youth love him.

Ince’s populist side is only one dimension of his candidacy. The real significance of his campaign is the prospect that people will wake up to a different Turkey on the morning of June 25th, assuming Ince wins. In his first day in office, Ince has vowed to reverse State of Emergency that has been in effect since November 2016. The State of Emergency has been the source of unlawful arrests and incarcerations that have no place in a democracy. His platform centers on reforming the judiciary so that imprisoned academics, intellectuals, and journalists will be released. By emphasizing freedom and democracy, as well as education, he has vowed to reverse the brain Turkey's drain out.

İnce speaks of how Turkey’s polarization impedes the country from making progress, and says he will create a peaceful, fraternal environment to overcome these fissures. He professes that he will privilege merit, and that identity will play no role in cabinet appointments.

Some might perceive these as empty campaign promises. But it is impossible for Turkey to overcome its current economic crisis without implementing such changes. Ince constantly emphasizes the relationship between personal freedoms and the economy, which the AKP does not fully appreciate. He realizes that investors and foreign capital flee from countries dominated by fear, anxiety, and lawlessness; that the first step in overcoming the current economic crisis is to reverse this polarized environment. He has good reason to declare, “You’ll see, the very day I am elected, the lira will gain against the dollar and euro.”

What’s more, he realizes that turning the economic tide is impossible while the government attempts to pay off foreign debt with yet more loans.

Ince understands that the path to moving past Turkey’s economic troubles is through replacing the existing single-man regime and command economy and instead implementing independent political and economic structures. He pledges to restore the independence of the Central Bank, to restructure state banks to support agriculture and industry, to consult top-notch economists and broad groups of advisers, and to value technological advances. His ultimate goal is implmenting a free and democratic parliamentary system upon which the opposition parties can all agree.

Muharrem Ince is almost guaranteed to run against President Erdoğan in the second round elections. He is the only candidate with a chance of winning against Erdoğan in a run-off. All analysts agree that voters from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has considerable support in the Kurdish southeast, will determine the results of this election. The fact that Ince voted against legislation that paved the way for the arrest of Kurdish parliamentarians, that he pledges to ensure students will be taught their native tongue in addition to Turkish, that he consistently speaks out to Kurds at rallies regardless of whether he is in the southeast or not, seems to have won the support of Kurdish voters.

The alliance that CHP and HDP voters must make in the elections is clear: some CHP voters must vote for the HDP to ensure they can pass the ten percent threshold for entering Parliament, and HDP leaders indicate that their voters will, in return, support Ince in the run-off. In the event that the HDP gains enough votes to enter Parliament, the opposition will have a serious chance of taking control of Parliament. In short, in this whirlwind of Turkish politics, these elections could yield many surprises.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.