ANKARA, July 4 (Xinhua) -- Two powerful conservative figures in Turkey are locked in next month's presidential race that will for the first time elect the country's head of state through a popular vote.
The leading candidate, according to polls, is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who announced his official bid on Tuesday after one and half months' delay. He is seen as the chief political Islamist that has led the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in the past 12 years.
Erdogan's major contender is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who has garnered support from five opposition parties, including Turkey's the main and junior ones.
Ihsanoglu's conservative credentials are undisputed, as he has led the 56-nation Organization of The Islamic Cooperation, the second largest inter-governmental body after the United Nations, for eight years before calling quits as the secretary-general by the end of 2013.
Selecting Ihsanoglu seemed to be a smart decision of the opposition parties for boosting their chances of beating Erdogan.
"For the first time ever, the fiercely secular party ( Republican Peoples' Party CHP) has shifted toward the right, and in a quantum leap, decided to endorse a personality whose past has had no political connection to its ideology," Turkish analyst Yavuz Baydar said.
He underlined that the two men represent two faces of Turkey's pious conservatism. While Ihsanoglu represents its extremely well educated, international face with his intellectual, scholarly and diplomatic experience, Erdogan symbolizes perhaps a provincial politician with a proven inability to read the world around him correctly, according to Baydar.
"His credentials certainly present a challenge to Erdogan," he emphasized.
The question becomes how many voters will pay attention to Ihsanoglu's track record as an international personality and well- respected intellectual.
Political analyst Koray Caliskan believed that Ihsanoglu can certainly move Turkey to a better position in the Middle East.
"Ihsanoglu suits the presidential office because he has concrete principles. This is true, but I am not sure how much this matters to the voters," he said.
POLARIZATION VS RECONCILIATION
Erdogan, whose roots trace back to the National View ideology that was set up by late Necmettin Erbakan, founder of political Islam in Turkey, is considered as a powerful Islamist. He led two successful governments from 2002 to 2011, with a progressive agenda that oversaw a burgeoning economy and political reforms. In his last term, however, the government was shaken by a massive corruption scandal that implicated his family members and close associates.
Erdogan was also accused by the opposition of moving Turkey towards a more authoritarian style of governance in the past couple of years. The opposition now touts their candidate as a perfect choice to address Turkey's problems from polarization to authoritarian tendencies that Erdogan has caused.
They highlight that he was able to secure nomination from opposition groups that represent diverse ideological base from nationalism to secularism. That may work for his advantage.
Ruhsar Demirel, deputy chair of the Nationalist Movement Party, said that by picking up Ihsanoglu as the nominee, the opposition offered a reasonable approach that would establish the peace and social coherence that Turkey needs. She criticized Erdogan for possessing a mindset that seeks to gain power and authority out of social polarization
Analysts also emphasized that soft-speaking Ihsanoglu may use his compromising style against Erdogan who often resorts to harsh discourse in his public speeches.
"Turkish society urgently needs a president who can reduce the increasing polarization between conservatives and secularists," Hatice Sagdic Yildiz, an expert on Turkey, commented.
CONCERNS OVER FAIR RACE
Turkey's opposition parties that nominated Ihsanoglu as the joint candidate are very much concerned over the fairness in the presidential race. Worried that Erdogan will use state resources to fuel his election campaign, they have called on Erdogan to resign from his post as prime minister. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) has already applied to the election commission to urge Erdogan to leave his post.
CHP deputy Mahmut Tanal said that the prime minister should resign in order to allow all candidates to compete under equal and fair conditions. He also noted that Turkish Constitution and election commission circulars require that all public servants must resign from their posts if they wish to run in elections. But the government denied such a requirement in the law, while AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik said on Friday that the prime minister will not resign.
Some also ask for Erdogan's resignation even on ethical grounds. Tarik Toros, a political analyst, said that it is unethical and inappropriate for Erdogan to use his power as the prime minister to run a presidential campaign, although it is legal.
Mustafa Destici, chairman of the opposition Grand Unity Party, also noted that it would be ethical for Erdogan to resign during his presidential campaign.
"It is a must for all public servants to resign if they wish to run for deputy or president. But prime ministers, ministers and deputies are exempt from this requirement. This is unfair," he added.
In fact Erdogan himself has forced ministers to resign during local elections this year, citing that it was not a legal requirement for the ministers to resign, but it would be ethical for them to do so if they wish to run in the local polls.
Haluk Koc, spokesperson of the main opposition CHP, said "when the matter is his personal interests, the prime minister ignores ethics and principles."