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Interview: Turkey presidential election 2014

Turkey’s secular parties gloomy ahead of presidential showdown with Erdogan

A CHP rally in Adana, southern Turkey, with party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (2nd left)
A CHP rally in Adana, southern Turkey, with party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu (2nd left) Reuters
Text by: Tony Cross in Istanbul
4 min

Turkey’s secularist parties are backing an indepent, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, in the country’s first-ever direct election for president, whose first round is on Sunday. But, in the race against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former Organisation of Islamic Cooperation secretary general has not exactly come out fighting, as even some of his supporters admit.


Binnaz Toprak is disarmingly frank about the chances of the candidate her party is backing in Turkey’s presidential election.

“Unfortunately all polls show that he doesn’t have too much of a chance,” she admits.
It shouldn’t be that way, according to Toprak, an MP for the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“Normally his chances should be high because the other major candidate, the Prime Minister Erdogan has been using hate speech against people with different identities, he has been screaming on the [TV] screen for the last I don’t know how many years, he scolds people, there is this tension in the country, whereas Ihsanoglu is this quiet man, who is a gentleman, who won’t even answer him.”

But being a gentleman doesn’t seem to be paying off.

The latest poll shows Ihsanoglu at 34 per cent, with Erdogan 57 per cent and left-wing

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Kurd Selhattin Demirtas about nine per cent.

Toprak says Erdogan is primarily responsible for an intense political polarisation in the country today, although she admits that her own camp has contributed to the bitter tone of polemics that turn to vitriol on social media.

“We have been divided into two or even three groups of people – the Kurds, the secularists and the Islamists – and the more he polarises, the more he consolidates his own supporters,” she complains, adding the she fears that “it could come to a civil war between these groups”.

The secular camp has supported military coups to prevent Islamist-led governments in the past but Toprak hopes those days are over, praising Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for forcing the military out of politics.

Although often described as a social-democratic party, the CHP has formed an alliance with the Nationalist Party (MHP) behind Isanoglu in this election, a pro-secular bloc that has come together over recent years despite the fact that the MHP is a hard-right party, whose members used to fight in the streets with left-wingers a few decades ago.

It’s just an electoral alliance, Toprak insists, saying that for her the CHP is still a party of the left.

The secularists may have been too dogmatic in their defence of the legacy of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, she admits, insisting on the banning of women wearing head cover in education and public service and regarding religious conservatives as vulgar provincials.

“Maybe it was too radical the understanding of the party in the past but I think that the party has come to an understanding where it’s willing to accept people who want to live and Islamic way of life, let them live that way of life. Nobody should interfere with the others’ choices.”

That doesn’t mean dropping the fight for women’s rights, however, particularly in the light of AKP leaders’ statements on the matter that lead feminists to fear the worst.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç aroused equal amounts of concern and derision recently when he said that women should not laugh in public, prompting a flood of selfies of immodestly happy females.

Erdogan has expressed shock at the state of dress at Istambuli women, said that women should have three or five children and threatened to criminalise caesarean sections and abortion.

“The women’s issue is an important issue,” comments Toprak. “Because I think it’s at the gist of the Islamist project anywhere in the world.

“What’s going to be different if the Islamist come to power? They adjust themselves to new technologies, modernity, buildings, roads, new phones and the modern economy. What would radically change is gender relations and the position of women.”

But don’t the polls show that the majority of the country agrees with this conservative religious agenda?

“Yes, they do.”

So what will the CHP do about it?

Again that disarming frankness.

“I have no idea. Despite all that has happened his [Erdogan’s] supporters still support him.”

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