ISTANBUL (AP) -- The former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation kicked off his campaign to become president of Turkey Thursday, highlighting his credentials as a champion of the Palestinian cause and promising to be a uniting force.
Launching his campaign in Istanbul, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu -- considered the underdog in the August elections where he will face Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- emphasized the strides he made toward Palestinian reconciliation and their international recognition during his nine-year tenure at the OIC. He promised to be a uniting force, in contrast to Erdogan's often divisive and confrontational style.
Erdogan this week accused Ihsanoglu of advocating "neutrality" and not siding with the Palestinians.
"How can one say that I did not serve the Palestinian cause?" Ihsanoglu said during the campaign launch, adding that he was the "first and only Turk" to be decorated by the Palestinians.
Ihsanoglu, a soft-spoken academic and diplomat, was nominated by Turkey's two main opposition parties. Three smaller parties have also endorsed his candidacy.
It is the first time a Turkish president is being elected directly by the people rather than by parliament.
Turkish lawmakers on Thursday, meanwhile, voted 237-37 in favor of legislation to push forward troubled peace efforts with the Kurdish rebels, which could help Erdogan win Kurdish votes in the two-round elections on Aug. 10 and 24.
The bill, which needs to be ratified by current President Abdullah Gul, allows the government to take steps it deems necessary to advance the talks, including granting amnesty to Kurdish fighters who lay down arms. Officials involved in talks with the rebel group would be immune from prosecution.
Turkey began talking to the rebels in 2012 in a bid to end the bitter conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.
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