The upcoming national elections on June 12 will set the tone as a run-up campaign in the presidential race for 2012 or 2014, depending on the decision by the election commission. That is why most political actors in Turkey seem to be laying out their strategies according to the political landscape that will be shaped afterwards. We all know that the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has his eyes on the presidency, and we might even see Turkey making systemic adjustments to the parliamentary system to reflect the characteristics of a presidential one.
Against this background, the response to the question of who will succeed Erdoğan is becoming a crucial commentary in trying to feel out the changing political landscape. There are certainly a young breed of politicians in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) who could take the baton from Erdoğan. We may also see caretaker or go-between leaders under the shadow of a charismatic and popular president.
But it is also likely that somebody outside of the AK Party could very well emerge as a serious contender in the race, which would sway not only AK Party followers but potentially appeal to a much wider audience as well. Advocates of the “outsider” argument say that if polarization in Turkish society is further increased, the sustainability of reforms in Turkey will become harder. As such, they argue, people will start looking for an outsider who could mend fences and reduce tensions.
Numan Kurtulmuş is such a potential challenger who could shake up politics in that direction. He is not a complete stranger to the AK Party rank and file and has a strong appeal in the party base. He follows the same path as Erdoğan, albeit with quite distinct personal traits. He broke away from the Islamist-based Felicity Party (SP) in a campaign against the late Necmettin Erbakan, the father of modern political Islam in Turkey.
Kurtulmuş proved to be a resilient political animal after he was able to increase the SP’s support from a mere 2.5 percent to 6 percent of the electorate in a short period of time as party chairman. After he split with Erbakan, he was quick to establish his own small independent movement called the HAS Party, translated as the “Voice of the People” in Turkish. He succeeded in getting almost all the different political colors to sign up for the cause of the party.
Judging from current poll numbers, which hover at around 1 percent, it would be a mistake to believe that the HAS Party will eventually vanish from the political landscape. Kurtulmuş is the third most popular politician in Turkey after Erdoğan and main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As parties in Turkey are pretty much identified with their leaders, Kurtulmuş’s HAS Party could be a serious contender in the medium term.
In contrast to Erdoğan, Kurtulmuş uses softer rhetoric and avoids using harsh language in making points during well-articulated campaign speeches. He lambasts politicians on both sides of the fence equally, accusing them of cheap punches below the belt that do not have much clout with the electorate. He bills much of the polarization to greedy old-school politicians in the Turkish capital and claims these politicians have lost touch with the regular people in the heartland of the country.
His party represents a mixture of different ideologies and makes it hard for the students of political science to pinpoint exactly where the party sits on the broad political spectrum. He voices socially conservative values, yet talks about individual liberties and human rights. At times, he sounds like libertarian, lashing out at what he calls a “bureaucratic oligarchy” in ruling the affairs of the country despite the elected government in place. He is egalitarian in a sense that income disparities between the rich and poor should be narrowed as much as possible, with much emphasis on equality and a strong middle class as the backbone of the country.
His team is composed of liberal democrats, Islamists, socialists, conservatives, social liberals and others. Different ethnicities and religions are represented in party management positions, which include non-Muslim minority groups as well. The common denominator among all these diverse groups is the focus on the human being at the center rather than government, and the protection of rights and liberties against the encroachment of state powers. A Turkish daily even called the HAS Party a “Noah’s Ark” in describing the rainbow features of the party.
I asked him a very basic question about how he would describe the HAS Party, during a breakfast in Burdur province last week where he was working to set up district offices for the election campaign. He said “the conscience of the people” is the best phrase to describe the political movement that they represent, stressing that the HAS Party will go after injustices no matter where and how they happen. For example, during his campaign tour he is promising farmers on the Aegean coast that he will voice their grievances on agricultural policies.
Kurtulmuş, a professor of economics, sees a real opportunity in the lack of opposition on issues that matter greatly to people, such as unemployment, especially among youth, and excessive credit debt for consumers. He believes he can mount a successful campaign against the government. In a way he is right, as the main opposition party the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has difficulty moving the debate from an ideological front, which is pretty much stuck in artificial issues like secularism and Kemalism, to kitchen-table issues. The number two in the opposition, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), feeds upon ethnic tension between Turks and Kurds just like the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).
On the campaign trail, I also had a chance to direct questions on foreign policy issues. He is not anti-Western or anti-EU per se, but he does question double standards employed by the West on the anti-government protests engulfing North Africa and the Middle East. He is way ahead of the government on rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia and advocates normalization as soon as possible with the involvement of all the stakeholders in the Caucasus. As the specter of Kurtulmuş haunts the AK Party and worries senior government officials, he is busy crisscrossing the country campaigning for the HAS Party to win the hearts and minds of people for a period of healing and restoration that would follow a painstakingly difficult and agonizing reform era. Kurtulmuş is positioning himself to be a lead contender in the post-Erdoğan era for the long haul. Time will tell if he can rise to the occasion.