Kemal Kilicdaroglu has lost almost every election in the past 13 years as leader of Turkey’s largest opposition party. However, he must depose President Erdogan in May. The leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) was put forward on Monday as the joint presidential candidate of a coalition of six opposition parties dubbed the “Table of Six”.
But his candidacy sparked little enthusiasm in opposition circles. It may be Kilicdaroglu who brought the six opposition parties together, but why is he succeeding this time? Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy even caused a short-lived crisis within the Six’s table. The nationalist IYI Party, the second largest opposition alliance, abruptly withdrew its support on Friday. Party leader Meral Aksener felt Kilicdaroglu had put his personal ambitions above the country: The popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara stand a better chance against Erdogan, according to opinion polls. Exner called on the two to do their “homework”, but they did not respond. Aksner returned to the table promising to become vice president if the opposition won.
Divisions within the opposition were grinding for Erdogan. “I’ve been expecting this to happen for months,” he replied with a smirk. These intrigues have been widely covered by the pro-government press, which has suddenly given full attention to the opposition in recent days. But the result appears to strengthen Kilicdaroglu’s position. “This is a political coup against Erdogan and should give the opposition a decisive victory in the first round on May 14,” said Hakan Akbas, director of political consulting for Strategic Advisory Services.
This conclusion is premature. Kiliçdaroglu, 73, isn’t exactly known as a good advocate. Before entering politics, he was a civil servant and director of the SSK social insurance organization. When he was elected leader of the CHP in 2010, he was dubbed “Gandhi Kamal” because of his resemblance to the Indian leader, both in appearance and in a calm political style. Critics say he lacks the energy and charisma to defeat a street fighter like Erdogan. He always calls him the derogatory “Bai Kemal” (Mr. Kemal).
Religion is no longer taboo
Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP underwent a quiet transformation. As the oldest party in Turkey, founded by Father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the CHP came to symbolize the dogmatic secularism that had dominated Turkish politics for decades. The party was dominated by the old secular elites, who looked down on religious conservatives and ethnic minorities and used polarizing rhetoric. Those elites were punished mercilessly in the 2002 elections that brought Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party to power.
Kilicdaroglu tried to break the influence of the secular elites by democratizing the party and bringing in many young social democrats. Polarized rhetoric has been replaced by a more inclusive political style. Religion is no longer taboo. The party tried to prevent pious voters in the country and poor suburbs from teaching them secular “civilization”. For example, Kilicdaroglu has tried to dispel the mistrust that many religious Turks have towards the CHP. But it was years before this began to pay off politically.
This was partly due to the people Kilicdaroglu put forward as a presidential candidate. In 2014, the Islamic academic and diplomat nominated Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a less charismatic man than himself. With his religious credentials he could infiltrate Erdogan’s supporters, the idea was. But this actually repelled the traditional CHP voters. Four years later, he nominated Muharrem Ince, a populist slacker who represented the secular wing of the party. But he failed to attract voters outside the traditional constituency.
Kilicdaroglu was more successful as a major political figure who managed to unite the divided opposition. To this end, he built a very diverse coalition of secularists, nationalists, Islamists, Kurds, and prominent former party members of Erdogan. The goal is to defeat Erdogan and dismantle his presidential system in favor of the old parliamentary system. The first success came in the 2019 local elections, when the opposition took power in most major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara. Economic distress was an important factor in this.
Kiliçdaroglu hopes to build on this success in the May 14 parliamentary and presidential elections. High inflation and state negligence in the devastating earthquakes in the south of the country enhance his electoral chances. “the [soefi-dichter] “If we share what we have we will be satisfied, if we divide it we will perish,” Kilicdaroglu told thousands of supporters on Monday. We will rule Turkey with deliberations and compromises. Together we will restore the rule of law and moral judgment.”
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Kiliçdaroglu has already vowed to end the corruption that has caused many buildings to collapse and many people to die in earthquakes. His image of an incorruptible bureaucrat comes in handy here.
His weak point, according to many, is that he belongs to Turkey’s Alevi minority, which has traditionally been at odds with the Sunni majority. He fears that Erdogan will exploit this ruthlessly in the election campaign to pit his religious conservative supporters against Kilicdaroglu.
But Kiliçdaroglu doesn’t let that fool him. Just as he rigorously absorbs Erdogan’s daily criticism and disdain. He wants to go down in history as the man who revived Turkish democracy. He once told reporters, “We don’t cast a pop star.” “The person must be able to unite the alliance and oversee the transformation of the country.”
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