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Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), has emerged as the main challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in elections scheduled for May 14. Kilicdaroglu hopes to deprive Erdogan of a third term as he grapples with the country’s economic crisis and the fallout from last February’s devastating earthquakes.
Turkey’s presidential campaign officially kicked off on March 10 and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is running for a third mandate, now knows who his main opponent is.
Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, 74, a bookish former bureaucrat, is often described by observers as Erdogan’s polar opposite. He was chosen by the Table of Six, an alliance of the six main opposition parties, after weeks of negotiations and debates.
“Today, we are very close to overthrowing the tyrant’s throne,” Kiliçdaroglu said the day after his nomination.
“Together, we will end this madness,” he added.
Opinion polls say the election will be close, adding that it is the most uncertain vote ever for Erdogan since he came to power in 2003.
FRANCE 24 takes a look at the issues at stake ahead of the vote.
‘Turkey’s Gandhi’ to challenge Erdogan
The Table of Six, a diverse coalition that includes parties from the entire political spectrum, struggled to designate a candidate for the presidential election. During the tumultuous weekend preceding Kemal Kiliçdaroglu’s selection, the coalition even seemed on the verge of imploding when Meral Aksener, the leader of the second-largest party in the alliance, threatened to withdraw from the alliance.
“Ultimately it was the need for consensus that won out,” said Aurélien Denizeau, an independent researcher specialising in Turkey. “The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the most important movement of the coalition, and it has embodied the opposition to Erdogan since its creation. Nominating its leader was a logical choice,” said Didier Billion, deputy director of France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris) and a Turkey specialist.
Kiliçdaroglu, 74, is a former civil servant who has held senior roles in the ministry of labour and social security who has now emerged as one of the president’s main opponents. Since 2008, he has made a name for himself by uncovering corruption cases involving members of the AKP, the presidential party. Nicknamed “Gandhi” for his calm demeanour, Kiliçdaroglu launched a 450-kilometre-long march in 2017 to protest the erosion of democracy in Turkey. In the mayoral elections of 2019, Kiliçdaroglu’s party succeeded in winning back several major cities, including Istanbul, from the AKP.
Despite these victories, many within the coalition criticise Kiliçdaroglu for his lack of charisma, favouring the nomination of the mayor of Istanbul or Ankara. “What some consider a lack of charisma could ultimately turn out to be an asset during the campaign,” said Didier Billion. “Kemal Kiliçdaroglu has a very different image than that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen as authoritarian and bellicose. The population wants this kind of normality.”
The Kurds, kingmakers of the election
Kemal Kiliçdaroglu’s nomination could rally the Kurdish vote to the Table of Six. Born into a family of seven children, the candidate is from the Dersim region, which has a Kurdish majority, and a member of the Alevi minority, which a heterodox branch of Islam. Based on his profile, he could potentially win over the nationalist wing of the alliance, keep his left-wing voters and win the vote of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
“About a third of the Kurdish population traditionally votes for Recep Tayyip Erdogan as conservative Sunnis”, said Aurélien Denizeau. “The vote of the remaining two-thirds, which usually vote for the HDP, is less certain. This is Turkey’s third-biggest political party. It has 10% of the vote. It will be the kingmaker in these elections.”
The co-president of the pro-Kurdish HDP party, Mithat Sancar, hinted on Monday that his party might not put forward a candidate and offered support for Kiliçdaroglu. “The alliance could win the first round of the election,” said Denizeau. “But the HDP’s offer depends on guarantees for the Kurds in the event of victory. Therefore, we will have to see what Kemal Kiliçdaroglu proposes in the upcoming days.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan weakened “but still solid”
Faced with the Table of Six, Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears “weaker than ever” but “he still enjoys a very solid electoral base”, said Aurélien Denizeau. “According to the latest polls, he still has 40% of the vote. That’s enough to win the election, but the result could be very close.”
During the campaign, Erdogan will also be able to count on a press that is almost exclusively under his control to try to rally voters. “He will certainly try to play up the divisions within the opposition in order to discredit it,” added the specialist.
While the outgoing president is vulnerable because of the economic crisis and heavy criticism of his management of the February 6 earthquakes, the opposition is struggling to formulate a program. “Their common denominator is to oust Erdogan, to put an end to the presidential regime and return to a parliamentary democracy,” said Didier Billion. “As for economic or social issues, they are dragging their feet until after the election, promising that there will be ‘compromises’.”
“Recep Tayyip Erdogan will also certainly try to improve the country’s economic situation, even in just the short-term,” said Aurélien Denizeau. “He will draw attention to his foreign policy – one of the few areas where there is a consensus on his positive record, especially when it comes to his handling of the war in Ukraine.”
This paper has been adapted from the original in French.