On June 24, 2018, Turkey goes to the polls in critical presidential and parliamentary elections. The country’s Supreme Electoral Council has approved six candidates in the 2018 presidential race. If no candidate gets over 50 percent in the first round, the two leading presidential hopefuls face a runoff two weeks later.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Incumbent seeks supercharged executive presidency

Age: 64
Party: AK Party (Justice and Development Party)
Political leaning: Conservative, Islamist
Alliance: People’s Alliance
Platform: New operations against Kurdish militants, lowering interest rates and inflation, EU accession
Nickname: Sultan

Erdogan – Turkey’s most powerful leader since its revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – has overseen a steady chipping at the pillars of the Kemalist state. These include secularism and the “deep state” matrix comprising the military-judiciary establishment. He achieved the former by leading his Islamist AK Party on a spectacular 15-year electoral victory run, winning local, general and presidential polls as well as a constitutional referendum. The dismantling of the Kemalist deep state was completed with the purging of senior military officials in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

Ahead of the June 24 presidential vote though, Erdogan is confronting major challenges. The economy, the bedrock of the AK Party success story, is at risk in a currency-and-debt crisis. The classic cycle of a nation becoming popular with international investors, running up debt, sparking falling currency value, which in turn increases the debt is playing out in Turkey today. Such times require a leadership with economic credibility. But investors are jittered by Erdogan’s frequent promises to personally manage the Turkish economy if he wins a second presidential term – this one, with sweeping new powers.

An uninterrupted 15-year run on power has also worn out sections of the electorate. While the die-hard AK Party voter base is unlikely to abandon their beloved leader, incumbent fatigue is starting to creep into Turkish politics. Erdogan’s razor-thin 2017 constitutional referendum win underscored the extent of Turkish unease over Erdogan’s power grab. Finally, while Erdogan has, in the past, credited his electoral success to the failure of the opposition to mount a serious challenge, this time, the opposition has rallied around a fresh strategy with new leaders. Victory may not be a given, but Turkey’s undefeated “sultan” has proved time and again that he’s capable of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

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Muharrem Ince

A popular firebrand excites a once-despairing secular opposition

Age: 54
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.

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Meral Aksener

The ‘she-wolf’ threatening the sultan

Age: 61
Party: Iyi Party (The Good Party)
Political leaning: Centre-right, nationalist
Alliance: Nation Alliance
Platform: Lifting state of emergency, ending clampdowns on the press and opposition, reviving the economy, education reform
Nicknames: Asena (a mythical she-wolf); The Iron Lady

A seasoned right-wing politician, ex-Interior Minister and former parliamentary vice-speaker, Aksener is no stranger on the national political stage. But she won Turkish hearts in the lead-up to the April 2017 constitutional referendum, when the gutsy grandmother split with the leadership of her party – the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) – and campaigned for a “No” vote. While the MHP’s aging leader, Devlet Bahceli, backed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to amend the constitution, Aksener was one of the fiercest “No” campaigners, defying threats and intimidation, including electricity shutdowns during her rallies. On the campaign trail, her signature sign – a henna imprint of the Turkish flag on her palm – proved electric, putting a defiantly feminine stamp on the macho world of Turkish politics while effectively silencing opponents who tried to brand her as subversive or unpatriotic.

In October 2017, she formed her own Iyi Party (the Good Party) and has vocally opposed Erdogan on almost every aspect of his politics, emerging as the biggest threat to the Turkish strongman.

The fact that Aksener inhabits the same conservative, nationalist ideological space as Erdogan makes her a formidable challenger in a historically conservative country.

The daughter of a civil servant, Aksener grew up in a western Turkish village, benefitting from the opportunities for women provided by the Kemalist state. After earning a doctorate in history, she was a lecturer at several universities before entering politics. In the mid-1990s, she was interior minister in a coalition government led by Islamist granddaddy Necmettin Erbakan until the military dismissed her. Her resistance to military interference won her credibility among Turkey’s then marginalised Islamists. As a former prominent member of the right-wing, nationalist MHP, Aksener appeals to patriotic, Kemalist Turks even as she personally steered clear of the thuggish, “Grey Wolves” fringes of the right-wing party.

A devout Muslim, Aksener is not an Islamist and in the 2018 campaign trail, she has pushed for women’s rights. Her platform of ending the state of emergency, reversing Turkey’s creeping autocracy and reviving the sagging economy also targets Erdogan where it most hurts.

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Selahattin Demirtas

Jailhouse campaign

Age: 45
Party: HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party)
Political leaning: Left-wing, liberal, pro-minority
Alliance: None
Platform: Transition to inclusive democracy, tackling unemployment and poverty, EU accession
Nickname: Selo; Kurdish Obama; Kurdish Mandela

From his cell in Edirne prison in northwestern Turkey, Demirtas announced his candidacy in the 2018 presidential race via a letter to his party in which he called on supporters to help him campaign. “As you may imagine, my hands are significantly tied here,” he wrote. “Now, you, the youth, the women, are my hands, arms, voice and breath.”

In the absence of national media coverage, Turkey’s imprisoned presidential candidate has conducted his campaign via his party’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the occasional written replies to questions submitted by international media outlets to his lawyer.

It’s an unusual campaign, but these are tough times for Turkey’s Kurdish politicians. The crackdown began when Erdogan pulled out of a peace process with the proscribed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in 2015 – the same year Demirtas’ pro-Kurdish HDP, for the first time, crossed the 10 percent vote threshold in the June general elections to enter parliament.

Arrested – along with HDP co-chair Figen Yuksekdag – in November 2016 on charges of “spreading propaganda for terrorists fighting the Turkish state”, Demirtas faces up to 142 years in prison if convicted.

The former human rights lawyer and popular, telegenic politician has denied the charges.

The son of a Kurdish plumber, “Selo” was one of seven children brought up in abject poverty in the eastern Turkish city of Elazig. At 18, Demirtas had an epiphany of sorts when he attended the funeral of a Kurdish human rights activist during the height of the brutal 1990s civil war between the PKK and the Turkish state. After graduating in law, Demirtas went on to head a local branch of Turkey’s IHD (Human Rights Association) before launching his career in politics.

Handsome, erudite and charismatic, Demirtas had a meteoric political rise so that by the time the HDP participated in its first local elections in 2014, Selo was a popular figure among leftists, liberals, and Erdogan opponents who participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Months later, Demirtas stunned Turks by making it to third place in the 2014 presidential race. His outreach beyond the Kurdish community to Turkey’s secularists, women’s rights and gay rights activists had worked.

But that was before the peace process collapsed and the war in neighbouring Syria sparked a state crackdown on Turkey’s Kurds. By the time a state of emergency was enforced following the July 2016 coup attempt, the noose was tightening around Selo’s neck.

Despite frequent calls for his release – including one by his secular CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party) rival in the 2018 presidential race – Demirtas continues to languish in jail, from where he ironically tweets about hypothetical campaign rallies he cannot attend.

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Dogu Perincek

Moscow’s man, Erdogan ally, but no friend of ordinary Turks

Age: 76
Party: Patriotic or Motherland (Vatan) Party
Political leaning: Far left, ultranationalist
Alliance: None
Platform: Fighting terrorism (particularly the PKK), withdrawing Turkey from NATO, improving relations with Russian and Syrian governments

Few figures personify the Machiavellian nature of Turkish politics as effectively as the veteran, far-left head of the Patriotic Party.

A lawyer by training, Perincek is a familiar figure in Turkey although he may not be well-known abroad. His only brush with the international headlines was a 2007 conviction by a Swiss court for denying the Armenian genocide, which was later overruled by the European Court of Human Rights on free speech grounds.

A dyed-in-the-wool communist, Perincek is virulently anti-US, pro-Russia, anti-Islamist, anti-Kurd, and a staunch nationalist.

While the Patriotic Party is a tiny ultranationalist player on the Turkish political scene, it punches above its weight in the security services, home to a disproportionate number of Perincek supporters.

He was a natural Erdogan foe during the 2008-2015 period, when the AK Party leader was seizing the levers of power in Turkey, particularly in the military.

Perincek was arrested in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison in the Ergenekon trials, a series of high profile cases against alleged members of Ergenekon, a suspected secularist cabal of military officers plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government.

The Ergenekon and subsequent Sledgehammer trials were widely believed to be a witch-hunt against the secularists orchestrated by the followers of Erdogan and his Islamist ally, the exiled Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

The two Islamist figures were later to fall out – with disastrous consequences for Turkish democracy, but very favourable ones for Perincek.

Following the July 2016 coup attempt, for which Erdogan blamed the Gulenists, Erdogan launched a massive crackdown on his opponents. The purges included pro-Western senior military officers, including generals and an estimated 400 Turkish military envoys to NATO.

With the top military ranks depleted of pro-NATO officers – dubbed the “Atlanticists” in policy circles – Erdogan proceeded to replace them with the “Eurasianist clique” of pro-Moscow officers that have long existed in the Turkish military.

It was perfect timing for Perincek, who had been pardoned and released along with several Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prisoners. Following the post-coup purges, the hardline secularist and extreme left-winger announced the formation of a “common patriotic front” with the “religious conservatives”.

The common agenda between Perincek and Erdogan includes the crackdown on the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and pulling the Turkish military closer to Russia. On the presidential campaign trail, Perincek has said he will pull Turkey out of NATO, invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Ankara and bolster bilateral ties to Venezuela.

These foreign policy goals are not likely to be met though since Perincek may have some supporters in the military, but not many outside it. Opinion polls have consistently shown the 76-year-old pro-Moscow candidate getting below one percent of the vote, which makes him a marginal player in the presidential race.

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Temel Karamollaoglu

Splitting the Islamist vote and getting in bed with the secularists

Age: 77
Party: Felicity Party (Saadet Party, SP)
Political leaning: Islamist
Alliance: Nation Alliance
Platform: Returning to the old parliamentary system, strengthening legislature and independent judiciary

The profile and popularity of the tiny, Islamist Felicity Party received a boost in late 2016 when Karamollaoglu was elected party leader.

A mild-mannered former engineer who graduated from the department of textile technology at Manchester University before completing his Masters in the same university, Karamollaoglu was active in Turkish student organisations in Britain in the early 1960s.

Born in Kahramanmaras in southeastern Turkey, his political roots go back to the Islamist Virtue Party, which was disbanded in 2001, with its followers splitting between the newly formed Felicity and far more popular AK Party.

Karamollaoglu may be an Islamist like Erdogan, but the 77-year-old former parliamentarian has been a vehement critic of the president’s policies, making him a potential pick for pious Turkish Muslims dissatisfied with the ruling AK Party.

The Felicity Party has traditionally held an Islamist, anti-US position particularly against Washington’s policies in Muslim-majority areas such as the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan and Iraq. But on the 2018 campaign trail, Karamollaoglu has avoided the old positions, preferring instead to stay on-message, namely his opposition to Erdogan’s autocratic policies.

Erdogan had attempted to woo Karamollaoglu into an alliance ahead of the upcoming elections. But the Felicity Party leader declined the offer, choosing instead to join the opposition Nation Alliance, which includes the staunchly secularist CHP.

It’s an unlikely alliance, but cynics note that desperate times call for desperate measures. Some analysts however note that Turkey has changed, with younger voters far less interested in the old ideological dichotomies as long as there is justice and freedom of religion.

Justice has been a major platform for Karamollaoglu on the campaign trail, with the Islamist candidate decrying Erdogan’s crackdown on the opposition and calling for the release of jailed Kurdish candidate, Selahattin Demirtas.

The Felicity Party candidate is not expected to make it past the first round of the June 24 vote. But he has been polling above the party’s dismal one percent of the vote in the last general elections. Opinion polls show him getting between one to three percent of the vote, which puts Karamollaoglu in a potential kingmaker position, and one who could snag an important ministerial position if the opposition manages to beat Erdogan in the 2018 presidential race.