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Muharrem İnce’s presidential bid: A lifeline for Erdoğan in disguise?

Homeland Party leader Muharrem İnce

Bünyamin Tekin

In Turkey’s ever-turbulent political scene, a familiar face has recently announced his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election, sparking heated debate and speculation.

Muharrem İnce, a former Republican People’s Party (CHP) member and the party’s presidential candidate in 2018, now leads the Homeland Party (MP) and is on a mission to gather signatures to secure his place on the presidential ballot. However, his candidacy has been met with skepticism from various segments of Turkish society, with concerns about whether İnce’s bid will bring about any positive change or, worse, tip the scales in favor of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Turkey will hold its presidential election on May 14, with 11 prospective candidates currently collecting signatures to compete in the race. The primary contenders are President Erdoğan, who is seeking re-election, and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate of an opposition bloc of six parties known as the Nation Alliance.

İnce initially gained recognition during the 2018 presidential election campaign, when he ran as the CHP’s candidate and secured 30.6 percent of the vote.

However, his response when the polls closed, when his supporters expected leadership from him, is still harshly criticized. He conceded defeat against Erdoğan on election night in 2018, before Erdoğan’s victory was certain, urging the re-elected Turkish president to embrace all the country’s citizens.

“I accept the election results,” İnce had said at the time, which earned him widespread criticism for failing to stand behind the votes of the people who supported him amid suspicions of election fraud.

Many say İnce’s candidacy could weaken Kılıçdaroğlu’s chances of winning since his likely voters will be from among people supporting Kılıçdaroğlu, not Erdoğan.

Following a falling out with the CHP in 2021, İnce formed his own party and has now set his sights on the presidency once again.

Both triumphs and setbacks have marked İnce’s political career. After an impressive run in the 2018 presidential election, during which he secured 30.64 percent of the vote as the CHP’s candidate, İnce has struggled to maintain his momentum. As a Kemalist figure, İnce attempted to unite Turkey’s secularist and nationalist factions but ultimately fell short of achieving a majority. Now, as he vies for the presidency once again, his campaign faces an uphill battle against the main opposition candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu, and the incumbent Erdoğan.

Journalists and prominent figures in Turkey have weighed in on İnce’s bid, with consensus being hard to find. Some view his candidacy as a well-intentioned, albeit futile, endeavor that will fail to surpass Kılıçdaroğlu. At the same time, the majority see İnce’s decision to run as a spiteful attempt to avenge his sidelining following the 2018 election loss. Still more sinister theories suggest that İnce’s campaign may be funded and supported by Erdoğan himself, in an attempt to divide the opposition vote and ensure his own victory.

An ORC survey on the presidential and parliamentary elections provides an interesting snapshot of the current political climate. According to the poll, Kılıçdaroğlu is likely to win the election with 53.1 percent of the vote in the first round, while Erdoğan’s share is predicted to be 42.3 percent. The survey results also revealed that İnce received 3.1 percent of the vote, while Sinan Oğan, the candidate of a bloc of four far-right parties, received 1.5 percent.  The survey was conducted on 4,540 participants between March 11 and 15 across 42 provinces. The ORC survey is considered significant because it predicted the results of the 2018 elections in Turkey more accurately than other pollsters.

İnce’s relatively low numbers in this poll highlight the claims of those who say his campaign will do more harm than good by splitting the votes of the opposition.

The current political climate in Turkey is characterized by a growing sense of urgency among opposition figures. With the country facing an economic crisis and the government’s poor response to two major earthquakes on Feb. 6 that killed more than 50,000, many believe the AKP and Erdoğan are more vulnerable now than at any point in their two-decade rule. İnce’s decision to run, therefore, raises concerns about the potential consequences for the opposition’s chances of victory.

One of the key issues at stake in this election is whether it will be decided in one round or two. If İnce manages to secure a significant portion of the opposition vote, neither Kılıçdaroğlu nor Erdoğan may achieve the required 50 percent majority, necessitating a second round. This scenario would provide Erdoğan with a critical two-week window in which to deploy various strategies to sway public opinion, such as manipulating the exchange rate through central bank interventions and stoking fears of an economic collapse should he leave office. The opposition, thus, is desperate to secure a victory in the first round to prevent any such maneuvers.

Some revelations on Twitter suggest İnce’s campaign might be benefitting from “astroturfing,” as most of the likes and shares on his Twitter posts are generated by bot accounts.

There are allegations that these bot accounts might have been created by government bodies such as the Turkish Presidential Communications Directorate.

The directorate, established in 2018, has reportedly increased its promotion of the AKP government ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. The directorate’s spending surged to TL 188.8 million ($10 million) in February 2023, compared to TL 50.2 million ($2.6 million) in February 2022.  The directorate has been accused of manipulating public perception in favor of President Erdoğan and his government while spreading disinformation about Erdoğan’s opponents.

This aligns with broader concerns about the role of astroturfing and misinformation campaigns ahead of the elections. Speaking to Deutsche Welle’s Turkish edition (DW Türkçe) Dr. Sarphan Uzunoğlu, director of NewsLabTurkey, warned of an influx of bot accounts on social media, while political scientist Prof. Emre Erdoğan has emphasized the importance of media literacy and critical thinking in the face of such manipulation.

Some of İnce’s critics have gone so far as to suggest that his campaign is being covertly funded and supported by Erdoğan himself, with the aim of splitting the opposition vote and preventing a victory in the first round of the election. While such claims are speculative at best, they nonetheless highlight the deep-rooted mistrust that has come to characterize Turkish politics in recent years.

Surprisingly, İnce appears to have garnered a significant following among Turkey’s younger generation, with many teens and young adults drawn to his nationalist and secularist rhetoric. This phenomenon speaks to the rising tide of nationalism among Turkey’s youth as well as their desire for change in the face of entrenched political power structures. However, it remains to be seen whether this support will translate into tangible results at the ballot box since İnce is still struggling to collect the 100,000 signatures required to secure his candidacy.

The Supreme Election Board (YSK) has accepted applications from 11 prospective candidates who are required to be nominated directly by voters because their parties failed to garner the required 5 percent of support in the 2018 elections. The YSK began accepting petitions on March 23 and will announce the number of signatures collected for each candidate every night until March 27, when the window for submitting petitions closes.

As of March 24 İnce had collected 59,419 signatures. Fatih Erbakan, the leader of the New Welfare Party (YRP), had collected 55,527; Oğan, the candidate of a bloc of four far-right parties, had collected 30,577, and Doğu Perinçek, chairman of the ultranationalist Homeland Party (VP), had collected 13,704 signatures. The other candidates had received  far less support.

İnce’s presidential bid has stirred up a maelstrom of opinions and speculation in Turkey’s already turbulent political scene. His campaign faces significant challenges, both in terms of public perception and electoral viability.

The upcoming presidential election in Turkey is set to be a high-stakes contest, with ramifications that will be felt far beyond the nation’s borders. The outcome of this election will determine not only the political trajectory of the country but also its relationship with global powers, neighbors and regional partners.

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