(Reuters) - The main Turkish opposition candidate for president stressed the need to keep religion out of politics on Thursday and called for national unity, a clear challenge to the divisive but popular Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan who looks set to win.
Erdogan, a founder of the ruling AK Party which has roots in Islamist politics, is expected to announce his candidacy next week and polls suggest he will win outright on Aug. 10 when Turks directly elect their president for the first time.
The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) last week named Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as their candidate, hoping to unite opposition to Erdogan, who remains widely popular despite alienating sections of society with his conservative agenda and aggressive style.
"We seek not a polarized, confrontational Turkey but a peaceful Turkey," Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old diplomat and academic told reporters in Ankara in his first public statement since his candidature was announced.
"We want to stress that all who have lived here together for centuries and all the values which make us what we are ... constitute our common cultural heritage."
Ihsanoglu stepped down as head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in December and his nomination is seen as an attempt to eat into Erdogan's conservative religious voter base. Ihsanoglu tried to reassure millions of secular Turks who accuse Erdogan of overseeing creeping Islamisation of the state.
"Religion and politics should be kept separate. One of the problematic issues for the Islamic world is that religion and politics are mixed up," he said.
ERDOGAN FAR AHEAD
Whether Ihsanoglu can beat Erdogan is another matter. Two polls published on Thursday showed the prime minister with a 20 point lead, should he decide to run.
A poll by Genar predicted Erdogan would win 55.2 percent of the vote, with Ihsanoglu on 35.8 percent. A second poll, by MAK Consultancy, put Erdogan on 56.1 percent and his rival on 34.2 percent, the pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah reported.
Both polls put Selahattin Demirtas, the expected candidate for Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, on less than 10 percent.
Erdogan would need at least 50 percent to win outright in the first round on Aug. 10 and avoid a run-off which could see opponents rally behind a single candidate.
Erdogan has made little secret of his desire to run, and if he assumes the presidency he is expected to exercise existing presidential powers to a much greater extent than incumbent President Abdullah Gul, whose role over the past seven years has been largely ceremonial.
Turkey's abrasive premier has endured one of the most challenging years of his career, dealing with anti-government protests, a corruption scandal that hit his inner circle and security concerns posed by war in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. However, a strong showing for his AK Party in local elections in March has buoyed his supporters.
The party will not announce its candidate until next Tuesday but Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Wednesday it will almost certainly be Erdogan.