Turkey’s ‘Gandhi’: Who is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s key challenger and the ‘future’ of Turkish democracy?

There will be a tight race between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main contender Kemal Kilicdaroglu. AP File Photo

Kemal Kilicdaroglu is the main rival challenging Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential elections scheduled on 14 May. The chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or CHP), 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu is confident of his victory. “These elections are not being held under suitable conditions,” he told The Guardian. “But despite it all, we will win. Because people want democracy.”

Known for his soft-spoken nature and making heart emojis with his hands, Kilicdaroglu has promised to bring freedom and democracy to Turkey if he wins.

Who is Kemal Kilicdaroglu and can he unseat Turkey’s Erdogan? What will his victory mean? Let’s find out.

Foray into politics

A former civil servant, Kilicdaroglu is the candidate of the six opposition parties that have come together to form a coalition against President Erdogan.

Born in December 1948 in the eastern Turkish city of Tunceli, Kilicdaroglu comes from a family that followed the minority Alevi faith.

After completing economics from Gazi University (formerly known as Ankara Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences) in 1971, Kilicdaroglu served in several top positions in economic and financial institutions of the country, as per Al Jazeera. He also taught at Hacettepe University in Ankara.

Kilicdaroglu worked towards removing corruption during his time as the director of the overarching Social Security Institution, reported BBC.

He was first elected to the Turkish parliament from Istanbul in 2002 as a CHP candidate, the same year Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) came to power.

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In 2009, he unsuccessfully ran for the post of the mayor of Istanbul. Within a year, veteran politician Deniz Baykal resigned as chairman of the CHP after a secret video tape was leaked of his alleged extra-marital affair. While Kilicdaroglu first refused to stand for the CHP chairman post, he later agreed and won by a landslide, as per BBC.

Turkey’s ‘Gandhi’

Kilicdaroglu has come to be billed as Turkey’s Mahatma Gandhi, earning the monicker of ‘Gandhi Kemal’ in the country’s media. As per Reuters, he is called so because “of a passing resemblance with his (Gandhi’s) slight, bespectacled appearance”.

Can Dundar, a former editor of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, wrote for The Washington Post in 2017 that Kilicdaroglu came to be referred to as Turkey’s ‘Gandhi’ soon after he took over the leadership of the CHP in 2010, but “the moniker had more to do with his faint physical resemblance to the Indian independence leader than with any similarities in revolutionary credentials or background”.

In 2017, Kilicdaroglu launched a “March for Justice”, walking 450km from Ankara to Istanbul with a sea of supporters, to protest against President Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent following a 2016 coup attempt.

“Building on the Gandhi analogy, some are…comparing Kilicdaroglu’s protest with the Indian leader’s famous Salt March of 1930, when he and his followers walked 240 miles to the sea coast to protest the British colonial monopoly on the production and sale of salt,” Dundar wrote in the 2017 Opinion article.

One of the ‘most-targeted’ politicians in Turkey

Kilicdaroglu has been targeted multiple times during his political career. In 2014, he was punched twice by a visitor in Parliament, leaving him with a bruised cheek and eye. As per BBC, despite this, the politician urged his colleagues to keep calm, saying, “the path to democracy is full of obstacles.”

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His convoy came under attack by a missile by the Kurdish militant group the PKK in 2016. The next year, he survived an attempted bombing by the militant Islamic State group.

In 2019, he was attacked by a mob at the funeral of a soldier killed in fighting against Kurdish militants.

Can he unseat Erdogan?

There is a tight race between the Opposition leader and Erdogan, who has been in power in Turkey — first as prime minister and then as president — since 2003.

As per The Guardian, Kilicdaroglu, who is touted as the “future of Turkish democracy”, has a narrow lead in opinion polls, which indicates that the election race may advance to a second round later in the month.

What if Kilicdaroglu wins?

According to Politico, some Turkish and Western commentators are of the view that if Kilicdaroglu ousters Erdogan from power, “Turkey can once again be democratic, prosperous, ready to pursue membership in the European Union, and better aligned with its NATO allies.”

Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance or the “Table of Six”, including CHP and five other Opposition parties, has promised to adopt what it calls the “Strengthened Parliamentary System” and discard “executive presidency” that has majorly increased Erdogan’s power.

If voted to power, Kilicdaroglu has pleged to deport millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees residing in Turkey.

“If the Opposition candidate wins, Western leaders will need to face massive consequences. Ankara will move promptly to normalise its relationship with NATO. But some of the current divergences, for example on Cyprus and Syria, will not go away. On the positive side, the rule of law will be reinstated and relations with the EU improved — though not eased,” Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote in an article for its website in April.

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