Istanbul, Turkey – In a dramatic development, one of the presidential candidates in Turkey’s knife-edge elections has withdrawn from the race in a move expected to bolster the chances of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger.
Muharrem Ince of the Homeland Party announced on Thursday that he was standing down from the presidential election, just three days before polls that have been billed as the most important in recent Turkish history.
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“I’m withdrawing my candidacy,” Ince told reporters. “I am doing this for my country.”
In a statement, Ince blamed an apparent smear campaign against him as the reason behind his decision to pull out from the race.
“Turkey could not protect my reputation. A presidential candidate’s reputation is important,” said Ince.
The 59-year-old, who branded the Homeland Party and his movement as the “third way”, was the only contender without an alliance backing him.
“The Homeland Party is important for Turkey’s future. It must be in the parliament. I want votes for the Homeland Party from every household,”‘ he said.
Ince also hit out at the opposition, saying: “When they [the opposition] lose the election they will put the blame on us. They shouldn’t have any excuses left.”
Basın Açıklaması / Memleket Partisi Genel Merkezi https://t.co/oTjeC2ARmJ
— Muharrem İNCE (@vekilince) May 11, 2023
His withdrawal is likely to boost votes for Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Kilicdaroglu is the candidate for an alliance of six opposition parties and has also received endorsement from other parties outside the coalition.
In his first public comment on Ince’s withdrawal, Kilicdaroglu tweeted an apparent invite for Ince to join his campaign: “My call still stands,” he said. “Let’s put aside old resentments and bad blood. We welcome Mr Ince to Turkey’s table. Please come.”
According to polling data released by KONDA, Ince’s share of the vote stood at 2.2 percent in its most recent survey, the last before Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Kilicdaroglu led the poll with 49.3 percent, followed by Erdogan at 43.7 percent. A fourth challenger, Sinan Ogan, stood at 4.8 percent in research conducted on May 6 and 7. KONDA, one of Turkey’s more respected polling firms, questioned 3,480 people in 35 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
A successful candidate must achieve over 50 percent of the vote to win in the first round and avoid a runoff between the two leading candidates two weeks later.
Most of Ince and Ogan’s voters preferred Kilicdaroglu in a potential second round, KONDA reported.
Addressing a rally in Ankara, Erdogan also remarked on Ince’s withdrawal. “One of the candidates withdrew,” he said. “Actually, I was sad. I wonder what happened, I don’t know.”
Ince unsuccessfully stood for the CHP against Erdogan in the 2018 presidential race. His centre-right politics are more closely aligned with those of Kilicdaroglu than Erdogan and his supporters are seen as more likely to back the CHP leader.
“Polls put his support at a few points, which might have pushed the vote to a runoff,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, DC. “This boosts Kilicdaroglu’s prospects in the first round further.”
Timothy Ash, a London-based economist specialising in Turkey, described the development as “another crazy day in Turkish politics”. He noted that the “assumption [is] that most of his votes now go to Kilicdaroglu, making it possible or more likely” for him to win in the first round.
Ash said Ince’s support had already shown signs of collapsing, which was reflected in Kilicdaroglu’s lead in the polls.
Ince, who left the CHP in 2021 to found the Homeland Party, has been accused of being on the “palace” payroll and of running in the election to split the opposition vote for Erdogan’s benefit. He cancelled rallies in western Turkey on Wednesday, citing health reasons.
His withdrawal came after a video circulated on social media purporting to show him having sex with an unknown woman. The footage was swiftly revealed as fake.
“Such a slander has never been seen in the history of the republic,” he said in a brief news conference outside his party headquarters in Ankara. “I have no fear of these plots. I am withdrawing from the nomination. I’m doing this for my homeland.”
Ince did not back another candidate and asked voters to pick his party in the parliamentary election.
His late withdrawal means ballot papers for the presidential election, in which Erdogan is seeking a third term after 20 years in power, will remain unchanged and Ince will appear alongside the other three candidates.