Turkish Kilicdaroglu emerges from Erdogan’s shadow in the electoral race

  • Türkiye holds presidential elections on May 14
  • Polls show Kilicdaroglu with a slight lead
  • Ankara could see a new path after two decades of Erdogan’s rule
  • Kilicdaroglu is supported by a coalition of six opposition parties

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has hung in the shadow of Recep Tayyip Erdogan his entire career, believes it is time to set Turkey on a new course and roll back much of the legacy of the man who dominated politics for two decades. .

A coalition of six opposition parties has chosen the earnest and sometimes feisty former civil servant as its candidate to take on Erdogan in the May 14 elections, which are seen as perhaps the most important in the country’s recent history.

Polls generally show Kilicdaroglu, 74, with an edge, and may win a second round of voting, after a sweeping campaign promising solutions to a cost-of-living crisis that has eroded the president’s popularity in recent years.

He pledged a return to traditional economic policies and a parliamentary system of government, an independent judiciary that critics say Erdogan has used to suppress dissent, and somewhat smoother relations with the West.

The opposition’s transformation plan aims to quell inflation, which hit 85% last year, though it is expected to bring turmoil in financial markets and may be the latest in a series of currency crashes.

“I know people are struggling to get by. I know the cost of living and the desperation of young people,” Kilicdaroglu said at a rally last week. It’s time for a change. A new spirit and understanding is necessary.

Critics say Kilicdaroglu – whom Erdogan despised after suffering repeated defeats in elections as head of the Republican People’s Party – lacks his opponent’s ability to rally the masses and fails to offer a clear vision for the post-Erdogan era.

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He is looking to build on the opposition’s victory in 2019 when the CHP defeated Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party in Istanbul and other big cities in local elections, thanks to the support of voters of other opposition parties.

Even if he wins, Kilicdaroglu faces challenges in maintaining an opposition coalition of united nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals. His selection as a candidate followed a 72-hour dispute in which the leader of the second largest party, Meral Aksener of the IYI party, briefly withdrew.

It “paints a completely opposite picture of Erdogan, a polarizing figure and a fighter who … strengthens his electoral base,” said Birol Baskan, a writer and political analyst based in Turkey.

He said that “Kilichdaroglu looks more like a statesman, trying to unify and connect with those who don’t vote for them… That’s his charm, and it’s very difficult to do in Turkey.” “I’m not sure he’s going to win, but he, Kilicdaroglu, is the right character at the right time.”

Polls suggest a tight presidential and parliamentary vote will take place, which will determine not only who leads Turkey but what role it might play in de-escalating the conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Many are wondering if Kilicdaroglu can defeat Erdogan, the country’s longest-serving leader, whose campaign charisma has helped score more than a dozen election victories.

But analysts say Erdogan is closer than ever to defeat despite his weight in the media, the courts and the government’s record fiscal spending on social assistance ahead of the vote.

The opposition stressed that Erdogan’s effort to cut interest rates triggered an inflationary crisis that destroyed household budgets. The government says the policy boosted exports and investment as part of a program to encourage lira holdings.

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Heal old wounds

Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu worked for the Ministry of Finance and then headed the Turkish Social Insurance Corporation for most of the 1990s. In his speeches, Erdoğan frequently disparages his performance in this role.

A former economist, he became an MP in 2002 when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party first came to power, representing the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), a party set up by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk that has struggled to reach beyond its secular bases. towards conservatives.

However, in recent years he has spoken of wanting to heal old wounds with devout Muslims and Kurds.

Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as an anti-graft advocate in the CHP, appearing on television to wave files that led to high-profile resignations. A year after losing the mayoralty in Istanbul, he was elected unopposed as party leader in 2010.

At that caucus, the campaign song blasted through a packed auditorium calling him a “clean, honest” man. “We are coming to protect the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the workers and the laborers,” Kilicdaroglu, wearing a striped shirt and a black jacket, told his supporters.

His election boosted his party’s hopes of a fresh start, but support for the CHP has since failed to pass above 25%. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party received 43% in the last parliamentary elections of 2018.

However, some argue that Kilicdaroglu has quietly reformed the party and marginalized hard-line “kemalists” who espouse a strict version of Atatürk’s ideas, while promoting members seen as more closely aligned with European social democratic values.

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Critics say he failed to resilient the steadfast CHP and, in the end, imposed himself as a presidential candidate over others who polled better against Erdoğan.

Born in the eastern province of Tunceli, Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi, a minority group that follows a religion based on Shiite, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions.

Last month, he publicly admitted it on social media, seeking to stop any political attacks given Alawite beliefs, which have put them at odds with the country’s Sunni majority.

Dubbed “Gandhi Kemal” by the Turkish media due to a passing resemblance to his bespectacled, light appearance, he captured the public’s imagination in 2017 when he launched a 450km “march for justice” from Ankara to Istanbul over the arrest of a CHP deputy. . .

Last week in the predominantly Kurdish city of Van, thousands rallied for Kilicdaroglu, which has the endorsement of the large, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) even though it is not in the main opposition alliance.

“I have boycotted the elections since 2018, but I will vote for Kemal Kilicdaroglu this time. The rise of radical Islamists motivates me,” said Faruk Yasar, 27, a Kurdish technician in the southeastern province of Batman.

(This story has been corrected to fix Erdoğan’s spelling in the headline.)

Additional reporting by Porco Caracas and Jonathan Spicer. Editing by Alexandra Hudson

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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