Kemal Kilicdaroglu: The soft-spoken reformer threatening Erdogan’s grip on power

The 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu is a quiet, soft-spoken figure. An apt phrase to encapsulate his image is a slogan from François Mitterrand’s 1981 French presidential election campaign: “la force tranquille” (“a force of calm”).

While little-known on the international stage until this presidential run, Kilicdaroglu has been a prominent figure in Turkish politics for years. After working as a senior civil servant in Turkey’s finance ministry, Kilicdaroglu was elected as MP for an Istanbul seat in 2022, representing the CHP, the party created by modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. 

“He’s the absolute antithesis of Erdogan – in terms of personality as well as politics,” Marc Semo, a Le Monde journalist and ex-Turkey correspondent, told FRANCE 24’s Le Débat show. 

Kilicdaroglu’s austere, intellectual style is the antithesis of Erdogan’s flamboyant strongman brand of leadership

“Kilicdaroglu is often criticised for his lack of charisma,” observed Didier Billion, a Turkey specialist and deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “Yes, he doesn’t have Erdogan’s charisma – but that’s not really a problem in this campaign, because Erdogan has been such a polarising figure in Turkey for years now. In this context, a big proportion of the electorate wants things to calm down.”

A “lack of charisma is sometimes its own form of charisma”, Semo noted. Kilicdaroglu “speaks like everybody else, making it hard to get mad at him – as his wife points out”. At a time of deep divisions in Turkish society, that is a “really appealing asset”, Semo said.

Changing the CHP

Kilicdaroglu first made a big name for himself as CHP vice-president in 2007, when he denounced corruption in Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Two years later, he lost the Istanbul mayoral race to the AKP’s Kadir Topbas – but still pulled off the CHP’s best city hall performance since the party’s last Istanbul mayor was elected in the late 1970s. Meanwhile Kilicdaroglu’s resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi and similarly softly-spoken demeanour earned him the nickname “Turkish Gandhi”.

Kilicdaroglu then ran for the 2010 CHP leadership contest – and won in a landslide, with 1,189 votes out of the 1,250 cast by party delegates. In his first speech as CHP leader, Kilicdaroglu said his top priority was to get rid of poverty in Turkey.

>> Read more : Looking back at 20 years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power

Slowly but surely, Kilicdaroglu softened the CHP’s axiomatic Kemalism – Ataturk’s authoritarian secularism, which was hegemonic in Turkey until the AKP took over in 2003. This was no easy feat, Billon suggested, as the CHP is “very dogmatic; very attached to Kemalist orthodoxy”.

But to make the CHP more appealing to the millions of socially conservative Muslim voters who supported Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu has toned down the party’s secularism. Most notably, Kilicdaroglu shifted the CHP’s position on women’s headscarves, a totemic issue in Turkish politics. Ataturk had discouraged the wearing of headscarves in the 1920s and his successors gradually introduced explicit bans in public institutions, which Erdogan reversed in several stages. Kilicdaroglu also allowed women into CHP ranks for the first time, which did not go down entirely well with traditionalists.

Not only did Kilicdaroglu say the CHP had “made mistakes in the past” by supporting restrictions, he also endorsed a constitutional amendment upholding women’s right to wear the headscarf. 

‘My struggle to claim your rights’

The biggest turning point for Kilicdaroglu as opposition leader came in 2017, when he made his famous “Justice March”. He went on a 450 kilometre march from Ankara to Istanbul to denounce the jailing of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for giving information to opposition newspaper Cumhurriyet.

Shortly after the Justice March, Kilicdaroglu wrote in The New York Times that he “walked with a broad range of Turkish people” including “wives of imprisoned journalists who want freedom for everyone who has been arrested for his views; families of terror victims who want enduring peace; a father whose son has been wrongly accused of involvement in the coup attempt.

“We walk for a Turkey in which heads are held high and minds are without fear,” he wrote.

“Kilicdaroglu did the Justice March on foot. He really gave a lot of himself. He talked to the people, he listened,” noted Semo.

>> Read more : Will Turkey’s inflation crisis damage Erdogan’s re-election chances?

But at that time, there was not a lot of political space for contesting Erdogan since the Justice March came amid the pervasive crackdown that followed the 2016 failed coup.

But in 2019, the CHP won mayoral elections in several major cities including Istanbul and Ankara.

Strengthened by this victories, Kilicdaroglu hardened his tone against Erdogan. He even refused to pay his electricity bills in April 2022 – in a display of protest against soaring electricity prices amid Turkey’s soaring inflation crisis.

After the power was cut off in his apartment, Kilicdaroglu railed against Erdogan’s economic policies, saying they had adversely affected the weakest in society: “This is my struggle to claim your rights,” he declared, saying “the rich got richer and the poor got poorer” during Erdogan’s tenure.

Indeed, experts blame Turkey’s rampant economic crisis on Erdogan’s belief – contrary to all evidence – that high interest rates fuel inflation. This has prompted Erdogan to cut rates when tight monetary policy is needed to squeeze inflation out of the economy.

Kilicdaroglu has accused the Turkish Statistical Institute of underestimating the inflation figures, officially at 85 percent in October 2022. Turkey’s Inflation Research Group, run by independent analysts, put year-on-year inflation at 137.5 percent in December.

‘I am an Alevi’

Kilicdaroglu is a unifying figure who appeals to Turkey’s ethnic minorities. Indeed, he broke a taboo in Turkish politics last week by making a public statement about his religious identity, declaring in a video: “I am an Alevi”.

The Nation Alliance leader comes from the Dersim (since renamed Tunceli) region, a predominantly Alevi and Kurdish heartland in eastern Turkey.

“This Alevi stronghold came in for heavy repression from Ataturk in the 1930s,” Semo noted. “This strain of Shiite Islam, profoundly marked by animist influences, was long persecuted by the Ottoman Empire whose sultan was also the caliph.”

Kilicdaroglu would be Turkey’s first ever Alevi president. If he wins the 2023 presidential election, it would be a “big symbolic moment in a country where religious and ethnic minorities feel persecuted”, Semo emphasised. “All of Turkey’s minorities see something of themselves in him.”

>> Read more : How the West, Russia see Turkey’s presidential elections

Kilicdaroglu has called for a deeper examination of Turkey’s treatment of minorities since Ataturk created the modern nation state in 1923 – suggesting that it has at times acted harshly towards the Kurds in particular.

“This is typical of the way he’s changed his party’s positions in recent years,” Billon noted. In doing so, he is “in tune with Turkish society”.

Nevertheless, Kilicdaroglu’s religious identity could be a disadvantage among an important section of the electorate since many theologically conservative Sunni Muslims still consider Alevis as heretics. Erdogan could potentially instrumentalise this against Kilicdaroglu.

Many would have preferred to see either the popular mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu – or his similarly popular counterpart in Ankara Mansur Yavas – as the opposition’s standard-bearer against Erdogan. However, everybody agrees that Kilicdaroglu is one of very few people with the qualities to unite Turkey’s heterogeneous opposition.

“Kilicdaroglu’s strength is not his personality but that of his opponent,” said FRANCE 24 Istanbul correspondent Ludovic de Foucaud. “The opposition is keen to focus on his platform – on the politics instead of the person. They want to put an end to one-man rule – to this ultra-vertical, Caesarist system Erdogan has built around himself.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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