ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The main challenger trying to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this month’s presidential election cuts a markedly different figure from the incumbent who has ruled the country for two decades.
Where Erdogan is a fascinating speaker, the unassuming Kemal Kilicdaroglu is soft-spoken. Erdogan is also a master of the campaign, using state resources and events to reach his supporters while Kilicdaroglu speaks to voters in videos recorded in his kitchen. As the polarizing Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian, Kilicdaroglu has built a reputation as a bridge builder and vows to restore democracy.
The contrasts are reflected in the political paths of the two men. Erdogan’s staying power has kept him in office first as prime minister and then as president since 2003. Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo) has not won a general election since taking over his party. Popular center-left secular Republican. Party, or CHP, in 2010.
But that could change on May 14, when Turkey holds its most closely contested presidential election in years. Opinion polls give Kilicdaroglu, 74, a slight lead over Erdogan, despite analysts warning of the dangers of dismissing a president with strong political skills. If neither candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the election will go to a runoff on May 28.
Divisions within the opposition have long helped Erdogan, 69, stay in power, but this time Kilicdaroglu is running as the candidate of a united bloc known as the Nation Alliance, which unified six diverse parties, including nationalists. and islamists. Kilicdaroglu has also secured the tacit support of the pro-Kurdish party.
Adding to Kilicdaroglu’s chances of victory are a faltering economy and high inflation that have been blamed on Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies. Another factor is the devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people and exposed years of government neglect.
Erdal Karatas, an Istanbul hairdresser, used to support Erdogan but has switched allegiance amid the economic downturn and inflation and will vote for Kilicdaroglu.
Erdogan’s “first 10 years were really successful, but in the last 10 years he has drifted off course. We can call it power poisoning,” he said. “We take loans to pay debts and credit cards. Our income does not cover our expenses.”
The Nation Alliance has vowed to roll back Erdogan’s efforts to concentrate vast powers in the hands of the president. The coalition has also pledged to restore parliamentary democracy with checks and balances, return to more conventional economic policies and fight corruption.
“This election is about rebuilding Turkey, ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry. This is about ensuring gender equality,” Kilicdaroglu said at a rally in the CHP stronghold of Izmir in western Turkey. “These elections are about reconciliation and not conflict. And these elections are about bringing democracy to Türkiye.”
In another stark departure from the incumbent, Kilicdaroglu has said his goal is to serve just one term and then retire to spend time with his three grandchildren. If he is elected, he plans to move to the modest presidential palace in Ankara that was home to previous presidents, rather than the 1,150-room palace Erdogan built.
Under Kilicdaroglu, analysts say, Turkey is likely to take a more pro-European and pro-NATO stance, while retaining Turkey’s economic ties with Russia.
Erdogan Toprak, a CHP lawmaker and a longtime friend of Kilicdaroglu’s, said that without Kilicdaroglu’s patience and consensus-building skills, a united opposition would not have emerged. The bloc includes Erdogan’s former allies.
“He doesn’t hold grudges,” Toprak said. “He attaches great importance to commitment and shows tolerance. That’s what created the National Alliance.”
Forming the alliance “required a lot of patience and personal sacrifice.” Kilicdaroglu “showed self-sacrifice and patience…even though he received a lot of criticism from within the party.”
The social democratic politician who has built a reputation for honesty and integrity was born in 1948 in the Tunceli province of eastern Turkey to an official father and a housewife mother.
He is the fourth of seven children from an Alevi family, an Islamic tradition that is distinct from Sunni, Shiite and Alawite sects and whose members have faced discrimination in the majority Sunni country.
An economist by training, Kilicdaroglu led Turkey’s social security organization before joining the CHP and winning a seat in parliament in 2002, the same year Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party came to power.
He came to public attention after exposing corruption allegations against members of the ruling party and became the leader of the CHP after the resignation of former party chief Deniz Baykal, who died earlier this year.
Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP, which was established in 1923 by the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, shed its rigid secular and nationalist stance and recently opened up to the Kurdish minority and more conservative sections of the society. She has assured pious women that their right to wear Islamic-style headscarves will be respected.
Led by Kilicdaroglu, the party managed to oust the ruling party mayors in Istanbul and Ankara in 2019 by launching an effective local election campaign. Until then, the party had lost every parliamentary and presidential election under Kilicdaroglu. The popular mayors of Ankara and Istanbul have campaigned on his behalf.
However, Kilicdaroglu is prone to turnovers. On April 1, he was forced to apologize after he was photographed accidentally stepping on a prayer rug. Erdogan, who has relentlessly mocked Kilicdaroglu over the years, used the incident to portray his rival as disrespectful of religious values.
Erdogan frequently refers to Kilicdaroglu as “Bay Kemal” or “Mr. Kemal” to portray him as an elitist political figure out of touch with Turkey’s impoverished and conservative heartland, despite the fact that Kilicdaroglu comes from a background Kilicdaroglu has adopted the nickname in response, frequently referring to himself as “Bay Kemal”.
Many have speculated that his Alevi background could cost him Sunni votes. Kilicdaroglu spoke about his Alevi heritage for the first time in a video address in April, when he called on young voters to end the politics of divisive sectarianism.
Unlike Erdogan, whose control of the mainstream media allows him to dominate the airwaves, Kilicdaroglu has been trying to woo voters with videos shot from his modest kitchen and posted on social media. Kitchen footage of him is now used as the background for video conference calls.
In 2017, Kilicdaroglu drew international attention when he walked for 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul in a “March for Justice” to protest the conviction of one of his lawmakers and a large-scale government crackdown on critics following an attempted coup in 2016.
The politician survived an attack in 2016 when Kurdish rebels fired a missile at a convoy in which he was traveling. Three years later, he escaped another attack by suspected Erdogan supporters while attending the funeral of a soldier killed in clashes with rebels.
“Türkiye is going through a difficult period,” Toprak said. Kilicdaroglu, “who is not power hungry, will overcome this troubled period through reconciliation and tolerance. The country has a one man rule problem. That will go away.
Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy and Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul contributed to this report.