Kemal Kilicdaroglu: the man who would be Turkey's new president

The mild-mannered opposition leader has a strong chance of ending the reign of Recep Tayyip Erdogan but has only a few weeks to convince his sceptics

The leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking in parliament on Tuesday. AFP
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Let’s cut to the chase: can he win? It’s what even the most casual observers of Turkish politics will have asked this week after it emerged that Kemal Kilicdaroglu – the leader of Turkey’s biggest opposition party – will challenge Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May’s presidential election.

The answer is yes. Mr Kilicdaroglu has transformed his image in the past six years and now has a strong chance of ending the Turkish president’s two-decade reign.

Yet victory is not inevitable. That’s not because competitive elections are fickle things or because there might be skulduggery – both of those things are true – but because of Mr Kilicdaroglu himself.

The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has spent his 13 years at the forefront of Turkish politics as a surprisingly divisive man.

Surprising, because of Mr Kilicdaroglu’s personality: he is a mild-mannered and unfailingly polite 74-year-old. Put politics aside, and it’s very difficult to find anything about him that is objectionable.

And yet his critics have done precisely that. They say he’s too reserved and doesn’t generate excitement because voters can’t relate to him – unlike the charismatic Mr Erdogan.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, with a sign reading 'justice' in Turkish, pictured in July 2017 walking in Istanbul on the final stage of his 25-day march against the detention of  party colleague Enis Berberoglu. Reuters

One of the great achievements of Mr Kilicdaroglu’s political career has been how he turned that perception on its head to make himself a credible candidate for president.

His early years in office were marred by consistently poor personal ratings. A 2014 survey by the pollster Metropoll is a typical example. It found just 27 per cent of voters approved of him, some distance behind Mr Erdogan, then the prime minister, on 43 per cent.

And his electoral record has been far from stellar: he has never won a national election.

Neither has his party drastically improved its fortunes during his time at the top. In the 2011 election, his first as leader, the CHP took 26 per cent of the vote and was the only party to increase its tally of seats.

At the most recent election seven years later, it won 23 per cent and its number of seats barely changed.

His electoral record has been far from stellar: he has never won a national election

Judged by the standards of other democracies, clearly something doesn’t add up. The 2010s were a time when the opposition leader could have expected growing support – Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), after all, were into their second decade in power and voter discontent was on the rise.

And yet voters didn’t see the opposition leader as the solution.

Part of the cause of that is the president himself. Mr Erdogan has spent years denouncing Mr Kilicdaroglu as inexperienced and incapable of representing the interests of conservative voters.

It’s been a highly effective campaign: people across Turkey are familiar with the nickname “Bay Kemal” (Mr Kemal), which Mr Erdogan coined in place of the more traditional “Kemal Bey” to reinforce the view that he is a westernised elitist.

So how can such a poorly perceived politician now be a plausible candidate for change?

The CHP leader first made a major impact on the public consciousness in 2017, when he protested against the increasingly politicised justice system by marching hundreds of kilometres from Ankara to Istanbul.

His party seized control of both those cities in local elections two years later, thanks in no small part to his clever politicking. He chose candidates that even sections of the CHP opposed, and he built alliances with other opposition movements to ensure they had cross-party support.

He’s brought together five other parties from across the Turkish political spectrum to produce a detailed plan to transition the country away from Mr Erdogan’s executive presidency and back to a system of parliamentary government.

He’s even managed claim back the Bay Kemal moniker as his own and now uses it in his election campaigning.

It’s all paying off: in December last year, Metropoll reported a narrower gap in the approval ratings (40 per cent for Mr Kilicdaroglu against Mr Erdogan’s 45 per cent), albeit with the CHP leader still running a deficit.

But this brings us neatly back to the question at the start: can he triumph on 14 May?

A winning candidate in a Turkish presidential election needs to secure more than half the vote. Mr Erdogan managed this comfortably in the last two elections

All the indications so far are that the president will still win more votes than any other candidate this time too, but there’s a greater chance that he’ll fall short of the 50 per cent threshold.

That would mean a run-off election between the top two candidates, probably Mr Erdogan and Mr Kilicdaroglu, on 28 May.

Any CHP candidate can rely on a solid social democratic and centre-left voter base of between 25 per cent and 30 per cent, while Mr Erdogan can expect a level of steadfast support similar to his personal approval rating – probably about 40 per cent.

That leaves Mr Kilicdaroglu with roughly a quarter of the electorate to convince.

Broadly speaking, these floating voters fall into two groups.

The first includes socially conservative, often religious people who live in rural areas or smaller inland towns, well away from the coast. Some will regard Mr Kilicdaroglu’s faith – he is not a Sunni Muslim but an Alevi– with suspicion.

The second is the Kurdish minority, who are difficult to quantify because Turkey does not keep records of its citizens’ ethnicity, but could number as many 15 million.

These groups are not self-contained – there are plenty of floating voters who fall into both camps, or neither – but represent the bulk of society that once supported Mr Erdogan and his AKP, but are now disenchanted.

Many live in the 11 provinces struck by last month’s devastating earthquakes. It is no coincidence that Mr Kilicdaroglu plans to make his first campaign visits there.

This will be the last and most important election of the CHP leader’s political career. It will be a colossal challenge to persuade floating voters, many of them instinctively sceptical of an untested leader of a left-wing party, and to do so while facing Mr Erdogan’s formidable campaign machine.

He has barely nine weeks to do everything.

Published: March 10, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: March 21, 2023, 4:37 PM