Turkey Election: Muharrem Ince, The Man Looking to Unseat Erdogan

Muharrem Ince Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu CHP turkish elections snap elections turkey
Ankara (GPA– Who is Muharrem Ince? Here’s some background on the man looking to be the next President of Turkey.

Last month, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and their electoral coalition allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) called to move up the national elections initially scheduled for 2019 to next month. There are reasons to think this move is partly fueled by desperation caused by a slowing economy but another factor the AKP and MHP also considered was the current state of the opposition who have just announced their candidate for President: Muharrem Ince.

Muharrem Ince Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu CHP turkish elections snap elections turkey
Muharrem İnce (left) with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu at the 2014 CHP convention.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The opposition in Turkey – or what’s left of it after years of purges and arrests – is fairly complex. “Opposition” is a fitting word though due to the fact that there is no single party that directly opposes the AKP in the polls despite the country being split nearly 50/50 along pro-AKP and anti-AKP voters. The largest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), accounts for around 25% of the opposition votes.

These fractures in the opposition make choosing a Presidential candidate hard for any party, but it is the CHP that has the best chance to produce a viable candidate to oppose Erdogan. The CHP didn’t seem prepared to do this when the snap elections were announced, but they quickly composed themselves and now Muharrem Ince is out to unite every segment of Turkey he can to oppose the AKP.

Related: Turkish Snap Elections Set for June as Erdogan Looks to Secure Power

Who is Muharrem Ince?

Muharrem Ince is a former teacher and school principal who has a degree in Physics and Chemistry from Balıkesir University, a public college in Turkey. While Ince wasn’t originally politically active, he later became the President of the Atatürkist Thought Association for the province of Yalova while working as the head of press for the local football club Yalovaspor. The Atatürkist Thought Association is a civil society group promoting the hardline secularism of the founder of Modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ince soon emerged as a sort of infamous critic of the AKP and launched his political career, joining the CHP in 2002 and was elected as the parliamentary representative of Yalova. As an MP, Ince began making a name for himself by regularly criticizing Erdogan in Parliament, which was often recorded.

These videos of Muharrem Ince often went viral and soon seemed to be an unofficial part of CHP strategy to draw attention to alleged crimes of the AKP. This strategy seemed to work well for Ince and his reputation grew eventually paying off in 2010 when he was elected to a leadership position of the CHP Parliamentarians until 2014.

Unfortunately for the CHP, this growing popularity of party members like Muharrem Ince didn’t translate into the type of victories the CHP wanted. 2011 may have been a good year for Ince, but the election for Prime Minister that year was a shock for the CHP. Despite a new strategy by CHP candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who joined with former nationalist party leaders who had lost their base to the AKP, CHP still lost to the AKP with around half the number of votes. This resulted in Erdogan remaining PM with  21,399,082 votes (49.83%) while Kılıçdaroğlu’s only managed to get about half of that with a total of 11,155,972 votes (25.98%).

Muharrem Ince Exits Parliament, CHP Stagnates

Muharrem Ince ended up leaving parliament in 2014 following a bid for the position of CHP chair that died during the party’s conference prior to the election which saw Erdogan win the presidency with 51.79% of the vote (21,000,143). The CHP-backed candidate Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, representing a 13 party coalition, did manage to take a respectable, yet insufficient, 15,587,720 votes (38.44%).

The results of İhsanoğlu’s campaign, while not a victory yet was still likely perceived by the CHP as a sign of potential victories in the future. It is also likely that the temporary confidence boost for the CHP that led them to think their best option for the next election in June of 2015 was to run Kılıçdaroğlu as their candidate for PM again. While this campaign obviously didn’t end with a CHP member as PM, Kılıçdaroğlu still managed to pull 11,518,139 votes (24.95%) while the AKP candidate, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who won the race with 18,867,411 votes (only 40.87%).

Related: Turkey’s Opposition CHP Leader Visits UK to Garner Support for 2019

While these election results may have failed to place Kılıçdaroğlu in the executive branch, the CHP still had reason to be optimistic. This was mainly due to the fact that the number of voters who had turned out for the AKP, while substantial, failed to deliver the parliamentary majority sought by Erdogan. As a result, despite the voters putting in Davutoğlu as PM the AKP still fell short of their goal of securing a parliamentary majority, losing 69 seats – dropping from 311 to 258 – and ending the party’s majority.

This loss for the AKP turned out to be a blessing for CHP which won 7 new seats in the parliament for a total of 132. These new seats still didn’t make the CHP the majority party, but with the AKP on the defensive, there did seem to be hope in limiting Erdogan’s growing power if the CHP could coordinate with the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which had a victory of their own, winning an astonishing 51 seats for a new total of 80, signaling a surprising resurgence in Turkey’s primarily-Kurdish southwest. The MHP also had some success during this election

One person who was clearly fazed by these results was Erdogan. The CHP victories likely fueled some of the President’s anxiety but the real cause for concern for the AKP was the HDP’s new strength. Unlike the CHP, which has always held some government seats with a strong secular base that the AKP will never win over, the growth of the HDP signaled that the Kurds were looking to blaze their own political path 4 years after many of them had supported the AKP in previous elections.

This good news for the opposition didn’t last long with chaos setting in quick with the failure to form a government accepted by Erdogan with both the CHP and MHP refusing to join a coalition with the AKP or the HDP. The HDP also saw their fortunes change when violence erupted in Kurdish-majority of areas of the country and a ceasefire between the government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fell apart in July.

The AKP soon capitalized on this instability and called a snap parliamentary election in November, which saw the AKP regain their majority, winning 59 seats for a new total of 317. The CHP gained only 2 seats – still hovering around their usual 25% – while the HDP lost 21 seats, mostly to the AKP. The MHP also suffered major losses going from their 80 seats down to 40.

Now that the AKP had their majority back they were in a strong position to further consolidate power following a botched coup in the summer of 2016 but for the sake of brevity, we won’t run through all this here. Needless to say, most people are aware of the massive purges and the AKP granting Erdogan emergency powers, which he has since used to stifle the courts, the press, and his political opponents, lifting the legal immunity from prosecution guaranteed to MPs, even throwing some HDP MPs out of parliament in the lead up to this year’s election. The MHP, for their part, saw the writing on the wall as all of this unfolded and later joined in a coalition with the AKP in 2017.

Related: Turkey Strips Two Pro-Kurdish MPs of Parliamentary Status

The Return of Muharrem Ince

The CHP still continues to hover around 25% in the polls but hasn’t produced any stellar candidates in the last several years which is likely why Muharrem Ince is returning to the scene. This seems to indicate that the CHP has learned that Kılıçdaroğlu isn’t going to win any elections, many religious nationalists may not join with the CHP, and that there best chance to win the presidency is running a candidate mostly known for just opposing Erdogan to try to avoid as many fault lines in Turkish society as possible, although Ince’s involvement with Ataturk organizations may turn off Kurdish voters. Kurds tend to have mostly negative memories of organizations honoring Turkey’s founder who led past ethnic cleansing attempts that the government still denies were genocides.

With only 25% of the vote, the CHP will need to bring in as many members of other parties as possible which is why they’ve formed a 4-party coalition with İYİ (Good) Party, the Felicity Party (SP) and the Democrat Party (DP). It is unclear whether this will be enough to ensure a victory for Ince – notice that none of these parties were mentioned above since they have failed to pass the 10% threshold required in polls to enter parliament – and there is also the concern caused by the HDP running their own candidate who has criticized the CHP for using a strategy reminiscent of Democrats in the US, by attempting to take nationalist votes from the AKP-MHP coalition while excluding left-wing parties from their coalition.

One HDP leader, Filiz Kerestecioğlu, has called the CHP’s side of the election a “right-wing coalition” signaling that the Kurds are already turned off by the Ataturkist candidate. These Kurds are wary of any nationalist leaders, but even more so now that a majority of Turks have backed Erdogan’s decision to invade Kurdish areas of northern Syria.

Related: “Operation Olive Branch” Continues as Turkish Troops Enter Syria

While it is true that there is around 50% of the population is opposed to the AKP, these fractures make a change in the presidency seem unlikely. The constitutional referendum to grant the office of President more power, with all of its accusations of vote rigging and intimidation, still saw the AKP get their preferred outcome with a victory of only about 1% exposing this split, but whether enough Turks will get behind Ince and the CHP remains to be seen.

As for Erdogan, despite some economic downturn, the snap election seems like yet another stroke of masterful political maneuvering by the AKP. Operation Olive Branch has rallied the anti-Kurd nationalists behind the AKP, Erdogan and his cronies control almost all of the media in Turkey (just search their archives for stories about Ince to see how much has been wiped from these outlets archives), and the slowing economy not yet being felt in a big way provide the AKP with an enviable leg up in the polls. There are also new election laws that may encourage government intimidation (such as allowing troops inside polling stations) and more chances for fraud with an end to the certification and sealing of ballots by election monitors.

Related: ‘If Erdogan Wins It Will Be Worse for Us’: Kurds Fear Stronger Presidency

Ince’s only real advantage is that half of Turkey seems to hate Erdogan, but that doesn’t mean they like him. The stakes in this election are high, with Erdogan seeking to take hold of the new Presidential powers, such as a nearly impossible to block veto power should parliament change hands that were granted by the 2016 referendum. No matter who wins they’ll have these powers but many people are rightfully unnerved by the prospect of that person being Erdogan. Whether that is enough to unify Turkey and deliver a victory for Ince is debatable.

This is part one of a series on the Turkish Snap Election. Part two is available below:

Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and What’s at Stake in the Turkish Election?