A popular firebrand excites a once-despairing secular opposition
Party: CHP (Republican People’s Party)
Political leaning: Secular Kemalist, social-democratic
Alliance: Nation Alliance
Platform: Ending partisanship in the judiciary and civil service, fighting corruption and terror, reviving the economy
Nickname: Ince (“thin” or “fine” in Turkish)
Spirited and combative, Ince has been one of the opposition CHP’s most pugnacious parliamentarians, known for his fiery speeches against the ruling AK Party in the house. A former high school physics teacher, he has been a parliamentarian from the northwestern province of Yalova since 2002, which means Ince has always sat in the opposition benches – a seating arrangement he would like to change.
The decision by the CHP’s aging, genteel leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to choose the younger Ince as the party’s presidential candidate was greeted with relief by the country’s embattled secularists. But Ince was apparently not the CHP’s first choice. In the desperate scramble to find a suitable candidate to take on Erdogan in the 2018 race, the country’s main opposition party initially tried to woo former Turkish president and AK Party co-founder Abdullah Gul, according to local news reports. But when Gul – an erstwhile Erdogan ally – declined, the mantle fell on the man who had stood twice for the party leadership, but failed both times.
As a presidential candidate, Ince has consistently polled in second spot, with Erdogan receiving less than 50 percent of the vote, making it likely that Ince will unite the anti-Erdogan vote in a runoff.
Like every opposition candidate in the 2018 race, Ince has complained of intimidation, smear campaigns and a lack of media access on the campaign trail. But with his energy, his open, direct style, and a mischievous sense of humour, Ince is better placed than his predecessors to take on ‘sultan’ Erdogan.
Born into a conservative family in Yalova, the CHP candidate is a staunch Kemalist, but has nevertheless defended the right of female civil servants to wear the veil and is capable of connecting with pious Muslim voters.
Considered a man of integrity, Ince opposed his party’s decision to support the ruling AK Party’s move to scrap the immunity for parliamentarians. The measure, which was passed in 2016, paved the way for the imprisonment of pro-Kurdish opposition parliamentarians, including HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas.
On the campaign trail, he has called for Demirtas’s release, publicly goading Erdogan to “let us race like men”. Ince has even visited the Kurdish candidate in jail and has promised to be a president for “all” Turkish citizens, a dig at Erdogan’s characteristically divisive discourse ahead of elections.
The Turkish opposition, long dismissed as hapless and incapable of uniting, has managed to bury their differences this year and build alliances. But the exclusion of the HDP in the opposition Nation Alliance – which includes the CHP, Meral Aksener’s Iyi, and the Islamist Felicity Party – proves that putting up a united front against Erdogan has its challenges.
The candidate most likely to face Erdogan in a runoff shares some physical traits with his arch political foe. Both Erdogan and Ince are tall, imposing men with sharp rhetorical skills. But Ince is exactly a decade younger than Erdogan and at election rallies, he has displayed the sort of vitality the young Erdogan once had, but appears to have lost.
Ince’s barbs also have more bite, particularly since he has a good target in Erdogan. Known for his modern lifestyle, including riding a bicycle, Ince is particularly fond of making digs at the garishly sumptuous presidential palace built by Erdogan. “I will never live in that place,” he has promised voters. “I was looking for a good real estate agent, I was thinking of selling it… But friends objected,” he added in a provocative dig at the current president’s penchant for awarding real estate bids to his inner circle of AK Party supporters.
It remains to be seen if Ince will indeed be in a position to determine the future of the controversial presidential palace or if he will only be talking about it from the opposition benches in parliament.