Muharrem Ince has in the space of weeks risen from being a fiery parliamentarian to a presidential candidate who has energised the Turkish opposition and poses a serious challenge to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Ince, a former physics teacher who has served as MP for 16 years, was in early May chosen as candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to stand in Sunday’s presidential elections.
With impassioned campaign speeches and a commanding presence on stage, Ince has emerged as the leading standard bearer of the opposition and a potential threat to Erdogan’s dominance.
While Erdogan is almost certain to win the most votes of the six presidential candidates on Sunday, Ince could give the Turkish strongman a run for his money if the ballot goes to a second round on July 8.
In the last three days of campaigning, Ince brought hundreds of thousands to hear him speak in Turkey’s three main cities — Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul — on a scale unseen in opposition election rallies in recent years.
– ‘Surprise for everyone’ –
Ince, 54, twice challenged CHP chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu for the party leadership. He was unsuccessful on both occasions, despite roof-shaking speeches, but Kilicdaroglu blessed his presidential candidacy.
Serving as MP for the northwestern province of Yalova, Ince often delivered loud recriminations in parliament and wrote a book entitled “Buyurun Muharrem Ince” (“Go ahead, Muharrem Ince”), a reference to the parliament speaker calling on Ince to speak.
In a colourful election campaign peppered with humour, Ince has ridden bikes, driven tractors, danced with his fellow citizens and even brought nappies on stage during one rally to rail against VAT on such products.
Ince, 10 years younger than Erdogan but sharing his origins in the Black Sea province of Rize, is one of the few politicians able to match the president’s soaring rhetoric.
“His performance has been surprising for everyone. He has good oratorial skills, using the people’s language,” said Emre Erdogan, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
Erdogan “probably would have liked another candidate as his opponent,” he added.
– ‘Everyone’s president’ –
When the CHP announced Ince’s candidature in Ankara in May, he took off his party badge and replaced it with a Turkish flag pin, vowing: “I will be everyone’s president.”
Ince is a secular politician who adheres to the values of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who also set up the CHP.
But one of the most striking aspects of his campaign has been inclusiveness, notably reaching out to conservative Sunni Muslims who are not the usual constituents of the CHP.
“I am the leftwing child of a conservative family,” the married father of one told Fox News Turkey in an interview last month. “The family is a coalition!”
He is often pictured with his mother who wears the Islamic headscarf, and in one of many videos on social media which went viral, kissed her hand — a Middle Eastern tradition — on the Eid al-Fitr holiday. It had nearly 500,000 views on Instagram.
Aware of the significance of Kurdish votes, Ince visited imprisoned pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidate Selahattin Demirtas in jail and held rallies in the Kurdish-majority southeast.
Again, these were highly unusual moves for a CHP candidate.
“He (Ince) respects all citizens, he doesn’t call those who do not like him terrorist or criminal; he embraces everybody, that’s what makes him different,” Begum Gulsum, a law student in Yalova, said at an Ince rally.
– ‘I’m not like you’ –
Ince is “continuously attacking Erdogan’s isolated lifestyle” and stressed his own credentials being more similar to ordinary Turks, said Erdogan of Bilgi University.
The candidate has even dismissed Erdogan as a “White Turk”, the term usually given to secular elite Turks from the western coast seen as aloof to the concerns of poorer populations in the Anatolian interior.
Against the background of his strong campaign, pro-government media have sought to dig up episodes from his past, jumping on a decades-old and hard-to-find book of poetry by Ince.
Outlets like the A Haber broadcaster said the poems contained “erotic” content and references to masturbation.
Despite criticism from Erdogan, who refused to read from the book, Ince acknowledged its risque content and stood by the verses.
“I am not like you,” he told Erdogan. “I won’t deny today what I said yesterday. I said it. I wrote it.”