Divided Turkish opposition names center-left Kilicdaroglu as presidential candidate
Turkiye’s six-party opposition bloc on Monday announced the joint presidential candidature of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkiye’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), who is set to face off against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May elections.
“We will govern Turkiye with consultations and compromise,” Kilicdaroglu said during the launch ceremony of his candidature in Ankara. “Our table is the table of peace. Our only goal is to take the country to days of prosperity, peace and joy.”
All eyes are now on Kilicdaroglu, who will challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in upcoming elections due to be held on May 14.
The opposition bloc’s deal came after intense negotiations to overcome objections by Meral Aksener, the leader of nationalist Good Party, the second biggest party of the bloc.
Erdogan is expected to officially call for elections on Friday.
If Kilicdaroglu wins in the runoff against Erdogan, he has promises that each party leader in the bloc, as well as the two popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, will become vice-presidents in his government.
In the road map announced by the opposition bloc on Monday, coalition party leaders pledged to return to the country to a parliamentary system and endorse the separation of powers.
The 74-year-old challenger, whose surname translates to “son of a swordsman,” grew up in a humble family of seven and spent his childhood in a remote village of Turkiye’s southeastern province of Tunceli, an Alevi stronghold.
Kilicdaroglu’s allegiance to the Alevi faith — a Shiite religious tradition — is often downplayed by the party leader, and is sometimes seen as a potential drawback to his popularity among Turkiye’s predominantly Sunni voter base.
In several interviews, Kilicdaroglu discussed the financial difficulties he faced during childhood. As a top student, he studied finance during his university education. He later excelled in the civil service by working at the finance ministry and then becoming general manager of Turkiye’s social security agency.
Following his retirement, he became a member of the CHP, where he gained popularity over a report he penned on corruption in the public sector, boosting his image in voters’ eyes. He would then acquire the nickname “Gandhi Kemal,” both because of his physical resemblance to Indian civil rights’ leader Mahatma Gandhi and his campaigns against injustice, including staging a three-week 450 km protest march from Ankara to Istanbul.
Kilicdaroglu has been a CHP parliamentarian since 2002 and staged an unsuccessful bid for the Istanbul mayor’s office in 2009.
After Kilicdaroglu became the chairman of the CHP in 2010, he contributed to the transformation of the main opposition party into a center-left social democratic powerhouse.
Unlike his predecessor, Kilicdaroglu has forged diverse alliances and ties with other opposition parties, including Islamist, pro-Kurdish and far-leftist groups, in an attempt to promote a pluralistic Turkish society.
“Kilicdaroglu’s vision is around democratic resilience against populist authoritarianism in Turkiye: Fear and resentment vs. radical love and justice. He embraces the country’s plurality and opts for transitional justice rather than revenge,” said political scientist Seren Selvin Korkmaz.
Kilicdaroglu is also known as one of the figures behind the success of Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, who assumed office in the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities, respectively.
And now Kilicdaroglu faces the biggest challenge of his political career in arguably the most consequential election in Turkiye’s modern history.
“Kilicdaroglu is not the opposition’s most charismatic figure but he has the ability to unify actors from diverse backgrounds,” Orcun Selcuk, assistant professor of political science and director of the International Studies program at Luther College, told Arab News.
“He is able to work with nationalists, Islamists and former leading figures within the ruling party.”
In order to win in the first round, a presidential candidate should reach a clear majority. Failing that, the top two candidates face off in the second round.
It is remains to be seen whether the third alliance bloc of left-wing parties will nominate a presidential candidate for the upcoming elections.
As Kurdish support is critical in determining Turkiye’s 13th president, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party co-chair Mithat Sancar congratulated Kilicdaroglu for his candidature and invited him to the party’s headquarters.
Selcuk said: “Yet, the plurality of actors within the opposition camp makes it difficult to manage in crisis situations. The biggest challenge is to manage and balance different factions within the opposition that support Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.
“In the last few years, due to the government’s poor economic performance, the opposition has been gaining ground.
“Elections and referenda in Turkiye are typically very close and public opinion polls show that the ruling coalition may have difficulty in reaching 51 percent,” he added.
However, according to Emre Peker, europe director at Eurasia Group, Kilicdaroglu was the weakest potential challenger to Erdogan and will have to fight an uphill battle to overcome the president in the elections.
“His personal background and track record as leader of the CHP, coupled with intracoalition tensions stemming from the Good Party’s resistance to his candidacy, will complicate efforts to mount an effective campaign,” he told Arab News.
Peker said that Kilicdaroglu will appeal to Kurdish and left-wing voters, but that risks costing him conservative and nationalist votes he has courted through parties he brought under the Nation Alliance umbrella.
“Moreover, he will be vulnerable to attacks on his personality by pro-government media to deter undecided voters — mostly from the ruling AKP’s conservative base — from voting for the opposition, and Erdogan will paint him as a loser, citing his failure to win any elections outright since becoming CHP leader in May 2010,” he said.
Peker added that Kilicdaroglu only stands a slim chance of beating Erdogan.
“Polls consistently showed him trailing other potential challengers — the CHP mayors of Istanbul and Ankara — and Kilicdaroglu could not establish a decisive lead over Erdogan despite the economic and other problems facing Turkiye. Kilicdaroglu and the CHP’s insistence on his nomination despite these facts has proved divisive,” he said.
“He is also likely to struggle to overcome prejudices against the CHP among many conservative voters, whose support he would need to clinch the presidency.”