ANKARA — On a recent campaign stop in the eastern city of Van, presidential candidate Muharrem Ince of the social-democratic and secular opposition party CHP made a proposal for how to address the Kurdish problem: Invite all parties to a parliamentary committee, the 54-year-old said, and broadcast the discussions live on television.

Only a few days earlier, in the Kurdish metropolis of Diyarbakir, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also broached the topic, albeit from a very different angle. "There is no Kurdish problem," he said. "The state of the Kurds is called the Turkish Republic."

Erdogan's biggest selling point, according to his own calculations, is his successful war against the Kurds in Syria, followed by an extensive military intervention in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK. His message wasn't really for the Kurds, in other words, but for his nationalist Turkish backers.

Still, the voices of the Kurds will have a say in Turkey's future, and many of those voters could end up backing Ince in the Sunday's first round of presidential elections, in large part because of the government crackdown on the HDP, the Kurdish party whose own presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is sitting in prison along with many of its other top officials.

It's Ince who has now emerged as the clear favorite in the opposition camp.

Poll numbers suggest that Ince could force a runoff against Erdogan — provided there is no major electoral fraud. The same poll predicts that Erdogan would win, but only by two percentage points. There's also a question of just how much faith Kurds really place in Ince. As voters know, Turkish politicians are known to promise anything during an election campaign, including unachievable goals.

Either way, Erdogan's Kurdish policy is clearly on people's minds. In the past two years, the Army has leveled entire villages, displacing some 400,000 to 500,000 Kurds in their own country. Their candidate, Demirtas, cannot win, and the other leading candidate alongside Erdogan and Ince, Meral Aksener — with her newly formed iYi Party (Good Party) — was interior minister in the late 90s, at a time of heightened repression against the PKK. As such she's unlikely to win many votes in heavily Kurdish southeastern Turkey.

Gaining momentum

Indeed, the Kurdish factor may have much to do with Ince's growing popularity in recent weeks. In that time, the CHP candidate has managed to shift the spotlight away from Aksener — whose own political ascent prompted Erdogan to push the election date ahead by more than a year — before the former interior minister and her new party have time to properly build their base.

Pundits had long claimed that only someone like Aksener, a conservative who was previously a member of the nationalist MHP party, could beat Erdogan. And yet, it's Ince who has now emerged as the clear favorite in the opposition camp. His rise is all the more surprising given how little success his party, the Kemalist CHP, has had during Erdogan's tenure as head of the Turkish government.

Even now, the CHP as a whole performs relatively poorly in polls, never scoring more than 20%. But voters do seem to like Ince, a former physics and chemistry teacher who served as a member of Parliament from 1999 until 2014. Erdogan's AKP, in the meantime, appears to be losing support. Since mid-April, the party's poll numbers have gone from about 50% to just over 40% — bad news for Erdogan, who is favored nevertheless, to retain the presidency.

Still, there does seem to be a change in the air. In late May, when Ince gave an interview to Star TV, viewership was four times greater than it was for Erdogan, who'd been interviewed by the same network just a few days earlier.

Ince knows how to say what Erdogan's opponents want to hear. He wants to reverse the presidential constitution, which provides the next president with more power than any politician since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey's founder, and restore judicial independence and press freedoms. He says a new government is needed to improve the slagging economy. And he accuses Erdogan of religious fundamentalism.

"He wanted to take us to Germany, instead he led us into the Wahhabi desert," the candidate said at one point. After 16 years of Erdogan, enough is enough, Ince argues.

It is quite conceivable that ballots could be manipulated.

But the candidate has also learned a lot from Erdogan. He goes to the mosque every Friday, uses strong-man language to insist that Turkey is "nobody's servant," and, much like Erdogan himself, has a penchant for attacking Angela Merkel. Ince once called the German chancellor "outrageous."

Erdogan has contributed to Ince's rise as well by focusing so much of his campaign on the CHP candidate. He mentions Ince more than he does Aksener. Ince also gets more attention in the media, including from state-controlled outlets.

Still, Erdogan is clearly the man to beat. He controls the media, the security forces, the judiciary and the electoral commission. Where he'll struggle is in the Kurdish southeast. It remains to be seen, therefore, what will happen if many Kurds vote for Ince. It is quite conceivable that thanks to emergency laws, ballots could be manipulated.


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