Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu: Turkey's Opposition Candidate

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu and his wife F├╝sun. (Photo: Republican People's Party)

When Turkey's two biggest opposition parties, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), named Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as their joint candidate for president in the upcoming election, eyebrows were raised around the country. Ihsanoglu, whose name could hardly be pronounced by politicians or pundits after his nomination ("ek-meh-led-in ee-san-oh-loo"), was a cipher to most Turks. All anyone seemed to know about the man was that he was a conservative, academic Muslim born in a foreign country. He wasn't active in the Turkish political arena and, until his nomination, was virtually unknown outside of Turkish academia.

This unfamiliarity led many to question the nomination. After all, the Aug. 10 election is historic—the first time a Turkish president will be directly elected by the people—and Ihsanoglu's main competitor will be Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular yet polarizing Turkish prime minister whose 11 years in power have proven him to be an effective, if controversial, leader.

"Erdogan has a political vision," said Dr. Ömer Çaha, professor of political science at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul. "Ihsanoglu is an academic." And the difference shows. Where Erdogan is inflammatory, Ihsanoglu is conciliatory. Where Erdogan is dramatic, Ihsanoglu is demure. In his speech accepting his nomination as presidential candidate, Erdogan declared, "We are the nation. Who are you?"

Born in Cairo in 1943 to Turkish parents, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu was raised in Egypt, where he learned to speak both Turkish and Arabic. He finished his undergraduate and graduate studies in Cairo, then moved to Turkey at 27 to attend Ankara University, where he completed a doctorate focusing on Ottoman history and culture.

Ihsanoglu has been a member of various academic institutions throughout the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Most recently, he served as secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second-largest international organization after the United Nations, where he worked to fight Islamophobia around the world.

Ihsanoglu's connection with Islam has been one sticking point for secular Turks and Alevis, many of whom are members of CHP. They worry that a Muslim president who has spent much of his career working with Islamic organizations, who was the de facto mouthpiece for the Muslim world as recently as last December, might seek to bring Islamic values into Turkey's government. Ihsanoglu seems to understand that concern.

"The main problem now is how to organize the relationship between religion and politics," Ihsanoglu told Al Jazeera last year, "how not to allow one sphere to dominate the other."

Additionally, Güven Karatas, vice president responsible for foreign affairs at CHP's Istanbul office, says that the OIC is not an "Islamic regime." He claims that Ihsanoglu's political agenda is based on tolerance and acceptance. "If we tell our voters, we are sure they will love him," said Karatas, though little of Ihsanoglu's actual platform has been revealed. Campaigns began only this past weekend.

Ihsanoglu's actions do seem to confirm a more tolerant nature than some of his equally religious contemporaries. In a recent speech on the anniversary of the incident, Ihsanoglu condemned the deaths of 33 Alevi intellectuals in an attack at the Madimak Hotel in Sivas in 1993 as a "massacre." He also called for the site to be made into a museum, a concession long sought by the Alevi people.

"He is a person who can embrace everybody in the nation," said Sinasi Baslilar, a vice president for MHP's Istanbul office. "The president of the Turkish Republic has to be above political ideology."

Ideologies aside, there's no doubt that Ihsanoglu has a less divisive personality than his opponent. It would be hard to imagine Erdogan, who sued a political cartoonist in 2005 for making fun of him, letting John Oliver tease him in an interview on The Daily Show, as Ihsanoglu did last year. Though they may appear similar on paper, the two men couldn't be more different.

"In addition to names, the race is about the style of presidency," said Atilla Yesilada, political analyst and co-founder of Istanbul Analytics. "Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu is not a rival to Mr. Erdogan's charisma or his achievements as an executive, but as the representative of Turkey abroad and the upholder of the Constitution."

In the Turkish political system, the president has a largely symbolic role, though he does have some important powers, including the power to send laws back to Parliament, the power to declare martial law and the power to appoint members of the Constitutional Court. In practice, most of the power of the executive branch lies with the prime minister and his administration, though it is widely believed that Erdogan is looking to shift power to the presidency.

"If Erdogan is chosen, he will become a real dictator," argued Karatas. "We will never see peace."

Despite Erdogan's infamy, Ihsanoglu still has a long road ahead. His name doesn't yet carry much weight with the Turkish people, and with Election Day drawing nearer, the Turkish public still has many unanswered questions about Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

Public reaction

"Before he became a candidate, no one knew him," said Yildiz Technical University student Aysegül Türkmaya. Many share this sentiment, which has them questioning Ihsanoglu's leadership skills, religious influences and devotion to the country.


Erdogan supporters and skeptics alike have described the joint-opposition parties' candidate as an academic who appears to be weak, quiet and ill informed about the political issues surrounding Turkey. "He does not know enough to be president. He came to Turkey when he was 27 years old and is not a politician," stated sailor Irfan Akin.

These types of statements have been directly disputed by officials from both CHP and MHP. Both parties, who differ considerably on their political standings—CHP being more liberal and secular and MHP being more conservative and religious—made it very clear that they did not choose Ihsanoglu to advance religious ideology or political control. They think of him as a peacemaker who will unite Turkey and save the country from Erdogan.

Yet, avid Erdogan supporters feel this could not be further from the truth. Many assert that Erdogan is the only person fit to lead Turkey, and will not even consider other options. Throughout his 11-year tenure as prime minister, his supporters feel he has done a great deal for the country, including upgrading infrastructure and improving education. Even after Erdogan and AKP's alleged corruption scandals that began in late 2013, many Erdogan voters tend to not acknowledge these accusations or deny them outright.

Fatma Kal, a housewife who lives in the conservative neighborhood of Eminönü, commended Erdogan, saying, "God helps Erdogan, because he is religious. Erdogan does not lie." This type of devotion is not an outlier in Turkish society. Others tend to be a little more disillusioned by politics and Turkey's political process.

"The election is just a game," commented graduate student Evren Yel. "Ihsanoglu and Erdogan are the same; they have the same ideas."

Certain parallels can be drawn between the two candidates. Two vice presidents of MHP's Istanbul office, Sinasi Baçlilar and Afsin Birber, acknowledged that they needed someone similar to Erdogan to compete with him and with the powerful AKP, which influenced MHP's decision to endorse Ihsanoglu. Appealing to the masses is important in political elections, but some Turkish citizens still feel that the two major candidates represent only one end of the political spectrum.

"They have the same mentality. They are both right-wing people," asserted Sahin Esner, a food business owner in Istanbul. However, the majority seems to believe Erdogan will win the election despite Ihsanoglu's efforts. A lot of people in Turkey are upset there are not more options for president, even after HTP's nomination of Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.

"It is so hard for Ihsanoglu to win. If you ask 100 people, 99 will support Erdogan," stated Mesut Yazgan, a customer service representative. Obviously, these numbers are not exact, but it is a fair representation of what many people believe—that Ihsanoglu does not stand a chance. Still, there are many who support Ihsanoglu based on his political ideology and/or because he is not Erdogan.

"If president, Erdogan will sell the country," said Aygül Polat, a Kurdish woman from Aksaray, a neighborhood with large refugee and minority populations. She went on to say that she believes Ihsanoglu is a good person. She thinks he will put the country first but says that may change after he comes into power. When asked who she would vote for, she said, "I do not know Ihsanoglu. However, I want him to be president, because I do not support Erdogan."

Some Turks believe Ihsanoglu can make a difference in Turkish society. "If Ihsanoglu wins, the country will be better off. There will be less pressure, and Turkey will become more democratic," commented Selda Godan, a hair stylist in Istanbul. This is the message Ihsanoglu's supporting parties, CHP and MHP, are trying to convey to the people of Turkey and the world.

"Turkey needs Ihsanoglu," stated Güven Karatas of CHP. "He will solve Turkey's problems peacefully. Erdogan uses tension to work toward his advantage. He also uses that same tension to advance religion. If you live with peace, if you support democracy and freedom, Ihsanoglu is going to ensure these values. His campaign is about stopping tensions, living in harmony and promoting tolerance."


Adam Virnelson and Stephanie Henkel of the Institute for Education in International Media are foreign correspondent interns in Turkey.