ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A candidate in Turkey’s presidential election announced his withdrawal from the race Thursday, a move that’s likely to benefit President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger.
The candidate who pulled out, Muharrem Ince, is the leader of the center-left Homeland Party. He was one of four contenders running in Sunday’s presidential election. Turkey holds a parliamentary election the same day.
Ince had faced criticism for potentially ciphering support from the six-party Nation Alliance, which has united behind the candidacy of opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and thereby forcing the presidential contest into a second-round.
“I am withdrawing from the race,” Ince told reporters in front of his party’s headquarters, following weeks of resisting calls to step down. “I am doing this for my country.”
Erdogan, who has led Turkey as prime minister and president since 2003, is facing the most challenging election of his 20-year rule. Polls have given Kilicdaroglu a slight lead over Erdogan, although neither candidate was expected to garner the more than 50% of the vote required to be elected in the first round.
Ince had polled at around 8% of the vote when his candidacy was first announced, but his popularity had since dropped to around 2%, according to opinion surveys.
The firebrand politician didn’t throw his support behind another candidate, but analysts said his withdrawal was likely to boost Kilicdaroglu’s chances.
“Ince was drawing on support from voters dissatisfied both with Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu,” Hamish Kinnear, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft, wrote in emailed comments.
“While polling indicates that a majority of Ince’s voters are likely to flip to Kilicdaroglu, it’s unclear if there will be enough voters to give him an outright victory in the first round,” he said.
Nation Alliance members welcomed Ince’s decision to step down, expressing hope for a first-round victory Sunday. Kilicdaroglu called on Ince to join the opposition coalition.
“Let’s leave old resentments, old grievances behind,” Kilicdaroglu wrote on Twitter.
Erdogan meanwhile, said he regretted Ince’s decision.
“Of course, it is impossible to understand why he withdrew. Honestly, I was saddened,” Erdogan said during an election rally in Ankara. “Now, we will continue (this race) with the remaining candidates. What matters is the decision of my people.”
Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu warned Russia against meddling in Turkey’s elections in favor of Erdogan, who has built a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Our dear Russian friends. You are behind the montages, conspiracies and deepfake content that were spread in this country yesterday,” Kilicdaroglu tweeted in Turkish and Russian. “If you want our friendship to continue after May 15, you must take your hands off the Turkish state. We are still in favor of cooperation and friendship.”
The presidential hopeful did not elaborate, and it was not immediately clear what content he was referring to.
Ince said the Homeland Party, which he formed in 2021, would still participate in the parliamentary election, and he called for votes for the party “from each household.”
The 58-year-old former physics teacher ran against Erdogan in the 2018 presidential election on the ticket of Kilicdaroglu’s CHP party. He had garnered around 30% of the vote but later broke away from the party.
“They will have no excuses if they lose the election,” Ince said, in an apparent reference to Kilicdaroglu.
Remaining in the presidential race with Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu is 55-year-old former academician Sinan Ogan, who has the backing of an anti-migrant party.
Robert Badendieck contributed to this report from Istanbul.