Kemal Kilicdaroglu | Erdogan’s rival 

Turkey’s joint opposition candidate has promised to defend the country’s democracy and institutions and strengthen ties with the West if voted to power 

Updated - May 15, 2023 10:15 am IST

Published - May 14, 2023 01:31 am IST

About 64 million Turks will cast their ballot on Sunday in presidential and parliamentary elections deemed to be highly consequential — both for the future of Turkish democracy and geopolitics in the region. They will choose between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (69), leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Kemal Kilicdaroglu (74), the presidential candidate of the Table of Six, a united front of six parties.

Mr. Erdogan has been in power, either as Prime Minister or President, since 2003. There is a sense among political observers that if Mr. Erdogan wins yet again, Turkey would transition to a de facto dictatorship. The man vested with the responsibility to prevent such an eventuality is Mr. Kilicdaroglu, leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the largest constituent of the Table of Six.

Born in 1948 in eastern Turkey, he was one of the seven children in a family from the Alevi religious minority. After a degree in economics, he worked with Turkey’s top financial institutions, including the Ministry of Finance, the country’s largest private bank, and its social security bodies. He entered Parliament on a CHP ticket for the first time in 2002, the same year that saw AKP commence its long reign. He has led the CHP from 2010, and has lost a series of elections to Mr. Erdogan.

A career bureaucrat

Mr. Kilicdaroglu doesn’t have the charisma or the penchant for the polarising rhetoric of Mr. Erdogan. As a career bureaucrat, he has a staid, professorial style that has led many to dismiss him as ‘boring’ and discount his chances against a mass leader like Mr. Erdogan. In fact, as soon as he was anointed as the Opposition’s joint candidate for the Presidential race, fractures appeared in the Table of Six, with Meral Aksener, leader of the centre-right Iyi party, pulling out of the coalition. She argued that the choice of Mr. Kilicdaroglu did not reflect the “nation’s will” and felt that either of his two rivals from his own party, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, were better bets against Mr. Erdogan. But after a meeting with Mr. Imamoglu and Mr. Yavas, she agreed to return to the alliance and back Mr. Kilicdaroglu in exchange for Mr. Imamoglu and Mr. Yavas being made vice presidents. The swift resolution of this crisis underscored Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s ability to negotiate and make deals with political rivals – a quality that could make up for a lack of popularity.

As head of the century-old secularist party created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has been at the forefront — though not always — of defending democratic rights in Turkey. In 2017, he led a march of more than 400km to protest against Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on Opposition politicians. So far, the only major victories under his leadership have come in the mayoral elections of Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s largest cities, sparking hope that the Opposition may have finally found a strategy to unseat Mr. Erdogan.

There is clearly a lot of discontent against the incumbent. While a stalling yet inflationary economy is a major issue, the more immediate cause of public anger is the government’s mishandling of the response to the February 2023 earthquake which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and northern Syria. Mr. Kilicdaroglu in his campaign has said the large scale collapse of residential buildings was due to corruption under the Erdogan government as a result of which building codes and safety regulations were given the short shrift. However, by and large, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has chosen not to focus on Mr. Erdogan, preferring instead to offer a positive message of hope, change and democratic freedoms.

But Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s love for democratic freedoms doesn’t extend to the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees in Turkey. Like Mr. Erdogan, he too has taken a nationalistic stance on this issue, vowing to send them back to their countries of origin if voted in. When it comes to foreign policy, where Mr. Erdogan has chosen to play all sides and even risk antagonising the U.S. in his bid to develop Turkey into an influential power broker, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has promised a more “balanced” relationship with the U.S. and indicated he would prefer Turkey to be more readily compliant with its commitments as a NATO member — which may not be great news for Russia.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s biggest achievement so far has been uniting the perennially bickering Opposition parties into a singular front against Mr. Erdogan. While he is slightly ahead of Mr. Erdogan in the polls, it remains to be seen whether he can draw enough voters away from Mr. Erdogan’s conservative base to get past the finish line.

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