Kemal Kilicdaroglu: Who is the man challenging Erdogan's reign in Turkey's elections?

Opposition leader and former civil servant pledges to boost democracy but champions refugee deportations

Could Kemal Kilicdaroglu become the new Turkish president? AFP
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This weekend the Turkish people will vote in one of the country's most devisive elections in decades.

It will determine the future of its long-time President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a man who has been the only leader millions of first-time voters have known.

His main challenger is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the face of Turkey's six-party opposition alliance and the symbol of a potential new future for the country.

Who is Kemal Kilicdaroglu?

Mr Kilicdaroglu, 74, is the leader of the centre-left Republican People's Party (CHP) — the product of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — which has opened up to Turkey's large Kurdish minority and supported more liberal ideas than the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Mr Kilicdaroglu was born in the eastern Tunceli province to an Alevi family, members of a long-persecuted sect, and started his career as a civil servant with the Finance Ministry. He later entered parliament as an Istanbul deputy in 2002 and has led the opposition since 2010.

He has a reputation as a mild-mannered man and the one-time "civil servant of the year" strikes some as a sharp contrast to Mr Erdogan's fiery persona.

The CHP leader ran for the Istanbul mayorship in 2009 and centred his campaign on an anti-corruption slate, a feature of his political career that has put him at odds with the AKP.

In 2017, he led a month-long protest march against the jailing of MP Enis Berberoglu and has exposed corruption within the AKP's ranks.

What has he promised?

Mr Kilicdaroglu has centred his campaign on democratisation and reviving Turkey's battered economy.

He has promised freedom of speech in a country where insulting the current leader is a punishable offence, telling the BBC he will bring "peace and democracy".

"I am telling young people they can criticise me freely, I will make sure they have this right," he said on Wednesday.

"The youth want democracy. They don't want the police to come to their doors early in the morning just because they tweeted."

Journalists, activists and regular citizens have been prosecuted under anti-terror laws for liking social media posts criticising Turkey's long-time ruler and thousands of people have been imprisoned for opposition views following an attempted coup in 2016.

"These elections are elections to rebuild our democracy," he told crowds in the coastal city of Izmir, a CHP stronghold.

He has also pledged to revive Turkey's economy and prioritise small businesses which have borne the brunt of soaring inflation.

Inflation has now slowed to 44 per cent, official data showed on Wednesday, but peaked at more than 85 per cent last year, worsened by Mr Erdogan's refusal to raise interest rates.

However, he is also known for strong anti-refugee rhetoric and many naturalised citizens have pledged support for Mr Erdogan in response.

He has pledged to send "all Syrians home" within two years of coming to power and has accused the government of "romanticising migration".

Can he win against Erdogan?

Several opinion polls have placed the CHP leader slightly ahead of Mr Erdogan, but only by single figures.

A definitive result is likely to arise only after a second round of voting.

If no candidate can secure at least 50 per cent of the votes, a second run-off will be held on May 28 between the leading two.

Mr Erdogan still has a strong support base despite a recent spate of illness-related cancellations challenging his strongman image.

He is particularly popular among religious Turks, who view him as a protector of tradition and defender against secularism.

Updated: May 15, 2023, 11:54 PM