Challenger in Turkey presidential race offers sharp contrast to Erdogan

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The main challenger trying to unseat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in this month’s presidential election cuts a starkly different figure than the incumbent who has ruled the country for two decades.

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Where Erdogan is a mesmerizing orator, the unassuming Kemal Kilicdaroglu is soft spoken. Erdogan is also a master campaigner who uses state resources and events to reach supporters while Kilicdaroglu talks 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 two men’s political paths. Erdogan’s staying power has kept him in office first as prime minister then as president since 2003. Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo) has not won a general election since taking the helm of his secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, in 2010.

But that could change on May 14, when Turkey holds its most hotly contested presidential election in years. Opinion surveys give Kilicdaroglu, 74, a slight lead over Erdogan, even though analysts warn of the perils of writing off a president with potent political skills. If neither candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes, the election will go to a May 28 runoff.

Divisions within the opposition have long helped the 69-year-old Erdogan hold on to power, but this time around 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 clinched the pro-Kurdish party’s tacit support.

Adding to Kilicdaroglu’s chances for 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 negligence.

Erdal Karatas, a barber in Istanbul, used to support Erdogan but has switched allegiances 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 veered off course. We can call it power-poisoning,” he said. “We take out loans to pay for 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 president’s hands. The coalition has also pledged to reinstate a parliamentary democracy with checks and balances, to return to more conventional economic policies and to fight corruption.

“These elections are about rebuilding Turkey, ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry. They are 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 Turkey.”

In another stark difference with the incumbent, Kilicdaroglu has said he aims to serve just one term and then retire to spend time with his three grandchildren. If elected, he plans to move to the modest presidential palace in Ankara that was home to past presidents, instead of the 1,150-room palace that Erdogan built.

Under Kilicdaroglu, analysts say, Turkey is likely to adopt a more pro-European and pro-NATO stance, while still preserving Turkey’s economic ties with Russia.

Erdogan Toprak, a CHP legislator and longtime friend of Kilicdaroglu, said without Kilicdaroglu’s patience and consensus-building skills, a united opposition would not have emerged. The bloc includes former Erdogan allies.

“He does not hold grudges,” Toprak said. “He attaches great importance to compromise, and he displays tolerance. That’s what created the Nation Alliance.”

Forming the alliance “required a lot of patience and self-sacrifice.” Kilicdaroglu “showed the self-sacrifice and patience ... even though he got a lot of criticism from within the party.”

The social democrat politician who has built a reputation for honesty and integrity was born in 1948 in Tunceli province, in eastern Turkey, to a deed officer father and a homemaker mother.

He is the fourth of seven children from an Alevi family, an Islamic tradition that is distinct from the Sunni, Shia and Alawite sects and whose members have faced discrimination in the overwhelmingly Sunni country.

An economist by training, Kilicdaroglu headed 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 grabbed public attention after exposing corruption allegations against ruling party members and became CHP’s leader after the resignation of former party head Deniz Baykal, who died this year.

Under Kilicdaroglu’s leadership, the CHP, which was established in 1923 by the modern Turkish Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has shed its rigid secular, nationalist stance and recently opened up to minority Kurds and to more conservative sections of society. It has assured pious women that their rights to wear Islamic-style headscarves will be upheld.

Steered by Kilicdaroglu, the party managed to unseat ruling party mayors in Istanbul and Ankara in 2019 by launching an effective local election campaign. Until then, the party had lost all parliamentary and presidential elections under Kilicdaroglu. The popular mayors of Ankara and Istanbul have campaigned on his behalf.

Kilicdaroglu is prone to fumbles, however. On April 1, he was forced to apologize after he was photographed accidentally treading on a prayer rug. Erdogan, who has relentless mocked Kilicdaroglu over the years, used the incident to portray his rival as disrespectful to religious values.

Erdogan frequently refers to Kilicdaroglu as “Bay Kemal” or “Mr. Kemal” to portray him as a elitist political figure who is out of touch with people from Turkey's conservative, impoverished heartland, even though Kilicdaroglu comes from a low-income background. Kilicdaroglu has embraced the nickname in response, frequently referring to himself as “Bay Kemal.”

Many have speculated that his Alevi background could cost 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 put an end to divisive sectarianism politics.

Unlike Erdogan, whose control of mainstream media allows him to dominate the airwaves, Kilicdaroglu has been trying to woo voters with videos recorded from his modest kitchen and posted on social media. Images of his kitchen are now being used as background for video conference calls.

In 2017, Kilicdaroglu grabbed 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 a 2016 coup attempt.

The politician survived an attack in 2016 when Kurdish rebels fired a missile at a convoy he was traveling in. Three years later, he escaped another attack by suspected Erdogan supporters while attending the funeral of a soldier slain in clashes with the rebels.

“Turkey 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.”

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