On 10 August the first ever direct election of the president will take place in Turkey. Erdogan's victory seems clear-cut, but In Thrace, Ihsanoğlu, the opposition candidate is expected to inflict a heavy defeat on the current Prime Minister. Thrace, however, is an exception and home to just over 2% of the population.
This is an unusual situation for Turkey. The president of the local AKP branch in Edirne in Eastern Thrace, struggles to explain why Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, Turkey’s current prime minister and the AKP’s presidential candidate, will only win between 30 and 35 percent of the vote in this city: “Probably so far we haven’t been able to explain our projects sufficiently , the voters still cast their votes according to ideological preferences”, said Rafet Sezen in the local AKP office. Sezen is soft-spoken with a political background in center-right parties. He joined the AKP in 2010 and recently became the provincial chairman after the municipal elections of 30 March 2014. He is also the chairman of Trakya Birlik, the union of sun flower farmers, one of the biggest in Thrace and a rather unusual AKP chairman: “For a strong democracy we also need a strong opposition.”
The Joint CHP/MHP candidate something of a liberal AKP one
The opposition in parliament consists of three parties. The Kemalist CHP, the nationalist MHP and the Kurdish (and leftist) HDP. In a rather surprising move, the CHP and MHP decided to run with a joint candidate, who is now supported by a total of 14 political parties. The second surprise was the candidate himself, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. While many expected a Turkish nationalist candidate with a secularist image who would represent the core voters of the CHP and MHP, the two parties came up with a candidate who could be described as a liberal version of an AKP candidate, best fit for the average AKP voter.
Ihsanoğlu, who was born and raised in Cairo, started his career as an academic and was among the founders of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul. From 2005 until 2013 he was the chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization of 57 countries with a Muslim majority. During most of his term, he was also a trump card for the AKP, showing as he did that Turkey is becoming a regional power with Turks leading international organizations. However, when Turkey demanded a strong condemnation of the military coup in Egypt, Ihsanoğlu answered that he represented 57 countries with different opinions on the issue – he claimed he could not be the spokesman for just one member. This abruptly finished the brief flirtation with the AKP.
The local CHP branch in Edirne doesn’t beat around the bush: “Ihsanoğlu is not the ideal candidate for us, but with a candidate who represents most of our core voters, we are stuck at around 30 percent. We wanted to come up with a candidate who has the chance of ending this nightmare called Erdogan. That is why we joined forces”, explained Oktay Bozkurt, the provincial chairman of the CHP.
The HDP does not have many voters in Thrace. A mere one percent voted for the party on 30 March 2014, and there are hardly any Kurds and few Turks who support the party. One of them is the owner of the Kılıçoğlu flower shop in the historic covered bazar: “Even if I am not Kurdish, Mr Demirtaş [HDP candidate, former HDP chairman] best represents my political ideas. There is a strong anti-Kurdish atmosphere and Kurds are presented as being mostly terrorists, I think this is totally wrong.”
The Roma leaning towards the AKP
There are few Kurds in Thrace, but another ethnic group, the Roma, who also suffer discrimination have a significant population in Edirne. “There are about 8 to 9 Roma neighbourhoods in Edirne”, explained Erdinç Çekiç, chairman of the local Roma Cultural Association. “It can’t be denied that during the AKP period there was, for the first time, positive dialogue between the Roma and the Turkish government. We came together to change the pejorative phrasing in some historic laws. This was positively answered by the AKP.” What followed was a Roma initiative by the AKP to institutionalize relations with the Roma associations. Erdem Güğümgüler, chairman of the Edirne Roma Association EDROM added that “it is strange that a party like the CHP who caters in their program for the workers and poor and calls itself social democratic hasn’t done anything in this respect.” However, for Erkan Malkaf, the AKP’s Roma policies are mostly a show without content: “Even if the CHP is not so present on this issue, the CHP had many more Roma candidates than the AKP in the latest elections. I am Roma and a member of the CHP party assembly in Edirne.”
After visiting the local AKP, CHP, the chamber of commerce and industry (“We want stability”), the Roma and shop owners, the picture in Edirne and the rest of Thrace, including the provinces Kırklareli and Tekirdağ, is that Ihsanoğlu is expected to get between 60 and 70 percent, Erdogan between 30-40 and Demirtaş around 1 percent. However, the population of these three Thracian provinces is about 1.6 million, which accounts for only a little bit more than two percent.
But these two percent are an exception. Thrace is a traditional stronghold of the opposition. In the rest of the country, the picture is quite different. Prime Minister Erdoğan is the clear favourite, most analysts believe that he will win in the first round with more than 50 percent. Less would already be a big surprise and lead to a second round on 24 August with the two strongest candidates.
Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere is a political analyst and journalist based in Istanbul – for more information see his website
This article was made possible through the support of “P24 – Platform for Independent Journalism” who organized a trip to Thrace in early August, http://platform24.org/en/