Religion is playing a huge role in the election campaign of the first direct ballot for the Turkish president. Both main parties are campaigning by using their Islamic devoutness to gain votes.
Less than two weeks before the Turkish presidential election on August 10, the attempt of one of Erdogan's closest confidantes to strengthen Islamic values in Turkish society has caused an uproar around the globe.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinc had complained about a moral decline in Turkey and suggested that as a remedy for Islamic morality, women, amongst others, should always appear demure and not laugh out loud in public. Anti-government protesters subsequently organized a public ‘laugh-demonstation' in the eastern Turkish city of Tunceli. Opposition politician Umut Oran also criticized Arinc for his portrayal of the government's visions for the 21st century.
Thousands of Turkish women also turned to social media in opposition to the Deputy Prime Minister's comments. Using the hashtag #direnkahkaha, meaning "Resistance hahaha," more than 300,000 photos of smiling and laughing women have been posted on Instagram and Twitter.
Both men and women from around the world joined in the backlash against Arinc, encouraging women everywhere to stand up against surpression.
As the hot favorite in the election, Erdogan immediately made his mark at the official start of his candidacy at the beginning of July. He began his first speech as a candidate for the ruling AKP party with a message from God and ended with a quote from the Quran.
Two in three voters describe themselves as devout
For more than a decade Erdogan and the AKP have relied on the support of conservative religious Turks. During the election campaign, Erdogan emphasized Islamic issues even more than usual. Speaking with Deutsche Welle, opinion poll-taker Murat Gezici said this was all with good reason: “More than two thirds of Turkish voters consider themselves devout Muslims.”
And by highlighting his Islamic devoutness, Erdogan can address another important group of voters – women. According to Gezici, Turkish women are, on average, more religious than men. “And 64 percent of AKP voters are women,” he added. That means: "According to this criterion, Erdogan is the ideal candidate."
Devout contenders with problems in their own camp
The two largest opposition parties, the secular CHP and the nationalist MHP, have both noticed this trend. Their mutual candidate and contender for the position of president is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. He used to be General Secretary of the Islamic world organization, OIC. It's for that reason that Ihsanoglu can also plausibly describe himself as a faithful Muslim. Poll-taker Gezici says this makes it more difficult for the AKP to tarnish him as a godless secularist like other CHP representatives in the past.
On the other hand, Ihsanoglu's "Islamic Brownie points" will become a weakness amongst some CHP supporters, because many secular voters are opposed to a devout candidate."Ihsanoglu is a lightweight," Istanbul political theorist Sahin Alpay told DW. "He could deter some CHP voters from going to the polls and further encourage Erdogan." With more than 50 percent of votes in the last opinion poll, Erdogan sat far ahead of Ihsanoglu, who won around 40 percent.
Abolition of religion as an election campaign slogan
The importance of religion in the election campaign has also been made clear by the tactics of the third candidate and Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtas. Instead of competing with Erdogan and Ihsanoglu regarding devoutness, he aims to win over non-religious voters, who don't feel that they are represented by the candidates of the big parties.
Presumably to show he meant it, Demirtas demanded an abolition of compulsory participation in religious studies at state schools. He said this obligation didn't fit in with a laicist state and the right to freedom of individuals. In opinon polls, Demirtas garnered between six and eight percent of the vote.
Demirtas has secured the support of a portion of the Alevi – an Islamic minority of up to 20 million people, who feel discriminated by the Sunnite majority in Turkey. Traditionally, the Alevi belong to the regular CHP electorate, but many are distancing themselves from the Sunnite Ihsanoglu. Erdogan has even bigger problems to win over the Alevi: one of the most important Alevi organizations recently rejected an invitation to a meeting from the Prime Minister.
Turkey's ruling AK Party will face its toughest electoral challenge next month. The key factor in the AKP's success will be whether a pro-Kurdish party will make it into parliament. Jacob Resneck reports from Turkey.
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