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What can Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu bring to Turkey’s presidency?

Ihsanoglu is a state-centric realist and puts Turkey’s national interests ahead of ideological behavior

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

Failing to defeat Turkey’s powerful prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the last eight elections, the opposition joined forces to nominate an unusual figure to challenge the country’s leader who has strayed from the democratic path he was marching on a few years ago.

This is the first time in Turkey’s history when two apparently conservative candidates are vying for a largely ceremonial position in Ankara’s presidential palace, Çankaya. The nomination of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former chief of the world’s largest Islamic body, the OIC, by the country’s two biggest opposition parties was a blow to Erdogan’s campaign, which built its political propaganda on a premise that the prime minister is a conservative and pious Muslim.

Following the revelation of an embarrassing corruption scandal as well as Erdogan’s divisive rhetoric, the opposition falsely believed that the public will punish him in local elections on March 30 for putting the country on a perilous precipice. That didn’t happen. People, fed up with imposition of the discriminating political and social system through anti-democratic means for many decades, opted to pick Erdogan again. It was t shocking for the nation’s liberals, who previously supported “good” Erdogan but thought it was time for him to leave.

The outcome of the March 30 elections sent a clear signal: Conservative people won’t vote for secular candidates with a troubled past of non-democratic practices. Repentance doesn’t sell in Turkey. There needed to be a fresh breath, a conservative candidate who is fit to challenge Erdogan. The opposition then nominated Ihsanoglu to cut Erdogan’s most effective method of garnering votes – exploiting people’s conservative values. Those who disliked Erdogan but were unable to cast their vote for anyone secular will now feel free to pick an alternative to the incumbent prime minister.

Who is Ihsanoglu?

Ihsanoglu is the son of a prominent Turkish Islamic scholar, who was even offered to lead Turkey’s religious affairs. Like his father, Ihsanoglu was also educated in Egypt’s Al-Azhar and Ain Shams universities. He has a good command of English and Arabic and is a well-respected diplomat across the world. He has written many books on Islamic thought, modernity as well as the Ottoman’s cultural legacies in Egypt and Syria. Statements by soft-speaking Ihsanoglu have already illustrated a stark departure from militant rhetoric dominant in Turkish politics, particularly fueled by Erdogan’s combative style. He is revered by the government’s critics for being “too intelligent, kind and humane,” more than his most powerful rival, Erdogan.

Ihsanoglu is a state-centric realist and puts Turkey’s national interests ahead of ideological behavior

Mahir Zeynalov

A day after he was announced as a presidential candidate, pro-government media in Turkey kicked off a tremendous smear campaign against Ihsanoglu, calling him a “Saudi, U.S. and Israeli puppet,” financed by Coca Cola and serving a hidden agenda of “global dark circles.” One Islamist newspaper zoomed in his wife’s photo in its front page, who is not wearing a headscarf, and described Ihsanoglu’s run for presidency as a “march to take down a veiled first lady,” referring to Hayrunnisa Gül, spouse of the incumbent President Abdullah Gül.

How powerful will he be?

The presidential post is a ceremonial one, but Erdogan vows to turn it into a powerful position by exhausting its entire authority. Erdogan’s possible win will allow him to consolidate much more power in a single hand, while Ihsanoglu has no such a goal, and in fact, capability. In a nutshell, the power of the presidency has a totally different meaning for both candidates. Erdogan views it as a seat to increase his strength, while Ihsanoglu considers Çankaya as a way to reunify the deeply divided nation and cut Erdogan’s ascent as a rising dictator.

Ihsanoglu made clear in his previous speeches that political bickering has radical and more profound negative consequences in public and that higher echelons of power must avoid public wrangling. Ihsanoglu pointed to a dispute between a prime minister and a president in Februrary 2001 which sent chills across Turkey and unveiled an ugly financial crisis and political chaos - a situation he believes needs to be avoided. It is obvious that Ihsanoglu will at least try not to publicly confront Erdogan that could unleash a crisis within the state. Cohabitation of two elected leaders in a country is unparalleled in the world and will no doubt at times take a heavy toll on the Turkish society.

He frequently highlights that he will seek to reduce tensions in the nation and behave as a unifying leader - a symbolic characteristic of the presidency. Although he still has not unveiled a detailed platform, one can decipher from his statements that he sees dangerous polarization as the biggest challenge facing the society and blames the current political rhetoric for the societal cleavage.

Hardcore realist in foreign policy

From his assessment of the country’s foreign policy, Ihsanoglu is a state-centric realist and puts Turkey’s national interests ahead of ideological behavior, something he believes is too dangerous for Muslim publics and states. He says taking sides in Middle Eastern conflicts has nothing to do with Turkey’s national interests and that Turkey’s most effective weapon is to be able to talk to every actor in the region.

He blames current decision-makers for ignoring the region’s realities and ranking state leaders as “good” or “bad” guys. On Egypt, he believes that the military ouster in the country was a step back from the nascent emerging democracy (he also blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for not properly handling the transition period) and that the country’s current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is taking Egypt backwards in rights and freedoms. However, he also believes that Ankara has no choice but to talk to leaders of other nations, no matter how non-democratic they are, or risk damaging its interests and miss the chance to help its neighbors get back on track. He states that the current government has tarnished Turkey’s reputation too much and that his role as a president will be significant in mending ties with other nations and restoring the country’s image as a modern nation.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.