ISTANBUL -- Just two days before the country's first direct presidential election, Turkey’s dark horse candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu still feels like he has a fighting chance against the likely winner, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has stood at the helm of politics here for 11 years.
"We are hopeful," the 70-year-old soft-spoken candidate told The WorldPost. "I will serve my country to bridge the gap between polarized people and make a more harmonious society."
"I think the most important issue is if Turkey goes in a democratic way, or if it will slide to a one-party regime and a more authoritarian administration," he added.
Sunday's election will be the first time in history that the Turkish people, rather than parliament, will elect their president. Ihsanoglu, the main opposition candidate, has promised to unite the politically divided country and says that the nation will not accept Erdoğan's plans to expand the powers of the president, typically a figurehead role. But in a city where massive posters of Erdoğan's face are plastered on buildings, colorful campaign flags flutter above bustling main streets, and huge campaign rallies portray Erdoğan as a celebrity, many people say it's a foregone conclusion that the prime minister will win.
"If elected, and he will be, Erdoğan will be able to maintain power until 2023," said Bayram Balci, a Turkey analyst and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think this is his hidden intention and calculation."
Ihsanoglu has faced an uphill battle to gain support in a country where Erdoğan has held the reins of power for so long. A recent survey by the private firm Konda Research and Consultancy found that 57 percent of the vote will go to Erdoğan, 34 percent to Ihsanoglu and 9 percent to Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party.
A common sentiment echoed across the city is that people will vote for Ihsanoglu because there's no other option, not because they're excited about what he has to offer. Cagdas Coban, a 31-year-old operations supervisor at an insurance company in Istanbul, said he had never heard of Ihsanoglu before the presidential campaigning began.
"It’s a surprise for us to have a candidate like this as an opposition," he said. "This looks like a candidate just to be the opposition, not that he has an idea or a plan for the future."
Coban says that he and many of his friends lost hope for a viable opposition candidate after this summer’s local elections, in which Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won by a landslide. He desperately wants the opposition to put forth a candidate who represents more liberal voters like himself as well as conservative Turks, who comprise the bulk of Erdoğan's support base.
"To win the votes of the people who support Erdoğan, they need to communicate to them that Erdoğan isn’t their only chance," Coban said emphatically. "They need to say: 'You may support Erdoğan, but I’m also like you.'"
Opposition to Erdoğan and his party has grown recently, largely due to a massive corruption scandal implicating government officials in fraud and a slew of other offenses. In an attempt to curb criticism of his party, Erdoğan shut down Twitter and YouTube earlier this year, sparking outrage among social media-savvy Turks. Just last week, Erdoğan's deputy prime minister said that women shouldn’t laugh in public, prompting women's rights activists to file a lawsuit against him.
But Erdoğan's image in Turkey has nonetheless been solidified as a leader who came from humble beginnings and is developing the country for the better. Since he took office in 2003, the economy has nearly quadrupled in size, and he has vowed to create a "new Turkey" by 2023, the 100-year anniversary of the republic.
"For many Turks, AKP and Erdoğan are synonymous with stability and economic prosperity," said Balci, the Turkey analyst. "Under AKP, a middle Turkish class has emerged and I think some people of this class, even if not satisfied with the authoritarian transformation of the AKP, will continue to vote for it."
Twenty-five-year-old Saher Kalyoncu, who sells prayer beads and books in a market in Istanbul’s Kasımpaşa neighborhood, Erdoğan's hometown, says the prime minister is the driving force behind a developed, stable country.
"Turkey will be strong if he’s elected," she said, adding that she has Erdoğan to thank for lifting restrictions last year on women wearing headscarves.
Across the street from the market, the walls surrounding a local mosque are covered with Erdoğan campaign posters. "His authority is not shaken," she said. "Erdoğan is on the right track."
For Ibrahim Erdogan, 52, who works at a logistics firm, there's no disputing who the best candidate is.
"I will vote for Erdoğan without any doubt," said Erdogan, who bears no relation to the prime minister. "There is only one leader born in a century. And he is that leader."
Burak Sayin contributed reporting from Istanbul.