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Rival rejects strong Turkey presidency as 'Erdogan's fantasy'

The main opposition candidate in Turkey's presidential election rejected plans for a strong presidency as a "fantasy" of his rival Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that would not be accepted by the Turkish people.

ISTANBUL: The main opposition candidate in Turkey's presidential election rejected plans for a strong presidency as a "fantasy" of his rival Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that would not be accepted by the Turkish people.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a soft-spoken, bespectacled intellectual put forward by Turkey's main opposition parties, is expected to come second behind Erdogan in Sunday's polls, when Turks will directly elect their head of state for the first time. While Erdogan wants to revamp the hitherto ceremonial post by changing the constitution to grant the head of state more powers, Ihsanoglu insisted he wanted to keep the current parliamentary system based on a neutral president.

In an interview with AFP, Ihsanoglu described Erdogan's plans for a powerful presidency as a "fantasy". "It is not to the benefit of our people. Turkey will not accept, but reject this system," Ihsanoglu said. "This could be his (Erdogan's) own personal ambition or his fantasy... Some people, some of our politicians or intellectuals may think this is right, but our nation as a whole will not approve of it."

He added that Turkey's democracy would face a different challenge should Erdogan win -- too much power in one person's hand and a violation of the principle of the separation of powers between executive and presidency.

'TURKEY DRAGGED TO CHAOS'

While Erdogan has criss-crossed the country giving mass rallies to tens of thousands of supporters, the Ihsanoglu campaign has been much more low-key, emphasising that Turkey needs a neutral and reconciling president. All his campaign posters make clear that Ihsanoglu is both a professor and has a PhD, in a bid to remind voters he seeks a presidency based on legality.

Born in Cairo to Turkish parents, 70-year-old Ihsanoglu stepped down in December as head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) during a tenure which saw him seek to build bridges between East and West. He is seen as a reconciliatory and moderate figure in stark contrast to Erdogan, who remains the most popular leader in the country despite alienating sections of society with his uncompromising rhetoric.

"The reason I accepted this candidacy is that Turkey is being dragged into an environment of chaos. There is polarisation, divisions and conflict. This is what we are standing against," Ihsanoglu said. "First thing I will do is to tell 76 million people in this country that I am the president of all of you. Just as the head of a family gathers the whole family around a breakfast, lunch or dinner table, I would like to gather 76 million people around the same people," he said.

A devout Muslim like the premier, Ihsanoglu has been tasked with drawing support from Erdogan's pious supporters. But with every opportunity he has tried to reassure secular Turks that he would respect the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founding father of modern Turkey. "We would like to see the modern Turkey re-unite around Ataturk's secular principles, re-build the sense of national unity and solidarity and peace at home," Ihsanoglu said.

The latest survey by the private Konda research institute predicted that Ihsanoglu would fail to push Erdogan into a second round two weeks after Sunday's polls. Erdogan would win 57 per cent of the vote, Ihsanoglu 34 and the pro-Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas nine per cent.

Associations representing Turkey's substantial Alevi minority -- an offshoot of Shia Islam which traditionally supports Turkish secularism -- gave Ihsanoglu a boost Friday by saying they would vote for him in the polls.

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