Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People's Party, arrives for a meeting before a six-party alliance nominated him as its common candidate to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Türkiye, March 6, 2023. (PHOTO / AP)
ISTANBUL – Stuck in Tayyip Erdogan's shadow throughout his career, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu believes his time may have come after suffering repeated election defeats and scorn from the man who has dominated politics for two decades.
An opposition alliance on Monday named Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), its candidate to take on President Erdogan in May 14 elections that are seen as perhaps the most consequential in Türkiye's modern history.
His prospects may have been boosted by a last minute deal to reunite an opposition bloc that had splintered on Friday over whether he should be the candidate.
After a 72-hour political drama, the six parties agreed that the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara would serve as his vice-presidents should he overcome Erdogan.
Kilicdaroglu would also be capitalizing on the opposition's 2019 triumph when the CHP defeated Erdogan's ruling AK Party (AKP) in Istanbul and other big cities in local elections, thanks to support from other opposition parties.
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A cost-of-living crisis amid rampant inflation and years of economic turmoil have eroded Erdogan's support, giving Kilicdaroglu another advantage.
"We will rule Türkiye with consultations and compromise," Kilicdaroglu told several thousand supporters cheering outside the headquarters of the Felicity Party, one of the six in the opposition bloc.
"We will establish the rule of morality and justice together," he said.
Kilicdaroglu's detractors say he lacks Erdogan's power to rally and capture audiences, and has no clear or convincing vision for what a post-Erdogan era looks like.
His backers underscore his reputation as an ethical bureaucrat, said Gonul Tol, head of the Türkiye program at Washington-based think-tank Middle East Institute said.
"He is not a corrupt man. He doesn't steal," she said.
"He wants to conclude his political career as the person who has resuscitated the Turkish democracy, that's why he is the right man."
People wait before Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the pro-secular, center-left Republican People's Party, or CHP, is nominated by a six-party alliance as its common candidate to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Türkiye, March 6, 2023. (PHOTO / AP）
Polls suggest a tight presidential and parliamentary vote, which will decide not just who leads Türkiye but how it is governed, where its economy is headed and what role it may play to ease conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Yet many wonder whether the earnest and sometimes feisty former civil servant can defeat Erdogan, the country's longest-serving leader, whose campaigning charisma has helped deliver more than a dozen election victories over two decades.
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His nomination comes a month after two huge earthquakes left Türkiye's southeast in ruins, and unleashed a wave of criticism of government over the poor disaster response and years of subpar building standards.
Initial polls since the quakes had suggested that Erdogan was able to largely retain his support despite the disaster. But the emergence of a united opposition, even after a delay in picking its candidate, could prove a bigger challenge for the strongman, analysts say.
Entry into politics
Erdogan's unorthodox economic policies, including interest rate cuts when inflation soared above 85 percent last year, have strained households and sparked a series of currency crashes since 2018.
The hardship presents a historic opening for Kilicdaroglu, a former economist, to end Erdogan's reign that began when AKP first came to power in 2002.
In that election, he entered parliament for the center-left CHP, a party established by modern Türkiye's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which has struggled to reach beyond its secularist grassroots towards move conservative Turks.
He has spoken in recent years of a desire to heal old wounds with devout Muslims and Kurds, including groups in Diyarbakir that he met and acknowledged that CHP had upset in the past.
But Kilicdaroglu has struggled to maintain momentum. Recent polling showed Erdogan's support had edged up since last summer thanks to measures including a raise in the minimum wage.
Following the earthquake, Kilicdaroglu adopted a more combative tone that helped him consolidate his own base, researcher Nezih Onur Kuru said. But it prevented him from appealing to indecisive voters.
Before entering politics, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74, worked in the finance ministry and then chaired Türkiye's Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s
"In times of crisis, center and right-wing voters – which make up over 60 percent of the electorate – seek unifying and result-oriented messages from politicians. Kilicdaroglu did not do this," said Kuru, of research firm Toplumsal Etki Arastirmalari Merkezi (TEAM).
"That did not help the overall opposition."
Rise through the ranks
Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as the CHP's anti-graft campaigner, appearing on TV to brandish dossiers against officials which led to high-profile resignations. In 2009 he lost an election as the CHP's Istanbul mayoral candidate.
The following year, he was elected unopposed as CHP leader after his predecessor's resignation in the wake of scandal.
At that party convention, a campaign song blasted across a packed hall describing him as "a clean and honest" man.
Wearing a striped shirt and a black blazer, Kilicdaroglu told cheering supporters: "We are coming to power. We are coming to protect the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the workers and labourers".
His election fuelled party hopes of a new start, but support for CHP has since failed to surpass about 25 percent.
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Still, Kilicdaroglu is viewed as having quietly reformed the party and sidelined hardcore "Kemalists" espousing a rigid version of the ideas of Ataturk, while promoting members seen as more closely aligned with European social democratic values.
Political commentator Murat Yetkin has said Kilicdaroglu has so far not been able to transform the CHP fully due to a "static political culture".
Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu, 74, worked in the finance ministry and then chaired Türkiye's Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s. In speeches, Erdogan frequently disparages his performance in that role.
Born in the eastern Tunceli province, he is a civil servant's son and an Alevi, a group which makes up 15-20 percent of Türkiye's 85 million population and which follows a faith drawing on Shi'ite Muslim, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions.
Kilicdaroglu has acknowledged being Alevi but generally avoids the issue. Alevis' beliefs put them at odds with the country's Sunni Muslim majority.
Nicknamed by the Turkish media as "Gandhi Kemal" because of a passing resemblance with his slight, bespectacled appearance, he captured the public imagination in 2017 when he launched his 450 km "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul over the arrest of a CHP deputy.
Kilcdaroglu orchestrated the CHP alliance with IYI and the Felicity Party in 2018 general elections, paving the way to the local election success the following year.
In Erdogan's first substantial blow as AKP leader, the CHP won mayoralties in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities thanks to the alliance and support of voters from a big pro-Kurdish party.
But Kilicdaroglu may struggle to replicate the 2019 victory on the national stage, where the CHP's previous election defeats loom large, said Emre Peker, Europe Director at Eurasia Group.
"Erdogan will paint Kilicdaroglu as a loser," he said.