Erdogan plays religion card in tight Turkey polls

Ankara (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has controversially turned religion into a campaign issue in the officially secular country's upcoming polls, which promise to be the biggest election challenge yet for the ruling party.

In an unprecedented gesture by a Turkish politician in recent times, Erdogan waved a copy of the Muslim holy book the Koran translated into Kurdish during a rally this week in the Kurdish-majority southeast.

"Turkey has never seen a president who leads an election campaign with a copy of the Koran in his hand," Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul's Bilgi University, told AFP.

The ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- co-founded by Erdogan and in power since 2002 -- is widely expected to win the June 7 legislative polls but faces an uphill struggle to win the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution.

One of the main obstacles could come from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) and AKP leaders are bashing the party in the hope of keeping it well under the 10 percent quota needed to win seats in parliament.

Erdogan's repeated attacks on the HDP during a tour of the southeast this week were controversial since as head of state he is supposed to stay outside politics.

But his use of religion to deter Turkey's Kurds -- who account for some 20 percent of the population -- from backing the HDP has raised eyebrows in a country whose political system rests on the secular foundations laid by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at its creation in 1923.

"Erdogan is trying to base his campaign on religion and melt down ethnicity-based policies in this particular region in order to boost the AKP's votes," Turan said.

"He (Erdogan) fears he will be isolated and weakened if the AKP loses support."

- 'I am neutral' -

Erdogan, who served as premier from 2003-2014 before becoming president, has urged Turkey to send 400 AKP lawmakers to the 550-member parliament so the party can change the constitution into the presidential system he craves.

The HDP lodged an unsuccessful complaint with the election authority this week, accusing Erdogan of violating the president's impartiality and using the Koran as a "propoganda tool".

Erdogan has denied the claims saying: "I am neutral vis-a-vis all parties but naturally one party is closer to my heart."

Huda Kaya, the HDP's candidate for Istanbul, said a president supposed to embrace all "cannot deliver a message for only one faith with a Koran in his hand."

"He should treat everyone the same rather than resort to discriminatory language that incites hatred," she told AFP.

Promoting a secular agenda, the HDP pledges to abolish the government directorate of religious affairs, as well as mandatory religion courses.

- 'Koran an instrument' -

Erdogan's election to president means this is the first poll where the AKP is not led by the charismatic politician, with the burden for day-to-day campaigning on the bookish Premier Ahmet Davutoglu.

Unlike previous elections where the AKP won all-conquering victories, this election looks tighter with the party expected to win 38-45 percent of votes according to the most recent polls.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition secular Republican People's Party (CHP), accused Erdogan of using the same political tactics as Kenan Evren, the general behind the 1980 military coup and a former president.

Evren, son of an imam who took the helm in the wake of the bloody coup, often recited verses from the Koran in public appearances, pushing for more conservatism in society as a bulwark to leftist extremism.

"Is the Koran something that can be used as an instrument?" asked the CHP leader.

Erdogan lost no time in hitting back. "Mr Kilicdaroglu, I have grown up with the Koran and I live with the Koran."

"What place the Koran has in your life is obvious," he said, in a veiled jibe at the CHP leader's adherence to the Alevi sect.

Necip Taylan, an AKP lawmaker from 2007 to 2011 and retired professor, told AFP that Erdogan's embrace of Islam was genuine.

"It's not new that the president is devout. Religion has always played a part in his life since childhood," he said.

But Taylan said he was "concerned in general with the emphasis on religion and sacred values in political debates."

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