Kilicdaroglu: Bookish retiree takes on Erdogan

Kilicdaroglu’s silver mane and square glasses give him a professorial air that betrays his background as an accountant who worked his way up to head Turkey’s social security agency

Leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the joint presidential candidate of the Nation Alliance Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C) waves as he visits Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Turkish Republic’s Founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, to mark the 19th May Commemoration of Ataturk, Youth and Sports Day celebrations in Ankara, on 19 May, 2023AFP

A retired civil servant from one of Turkey’s most repressed social groups has defied doubters by pushing veteran President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a historic election runoff.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu may need to perform another minor miracle if he is to convert his 14 May performance into an outright victory next Sunday.

It is a mark of how far Kilicdaroglu, whom few outside Turkey have heard of, has come that his first-round result came off looking like a disappointment.

Erdogan picked up 49.5 per cent of the ballot, thus falling short of a first-round victory for the first time in 20 years of dominant rule.

Kilicdaroglu won more votes than any of Erdogan’s past rivals finishing with 44.9 per cent of votes cast.

But pre-election polls had shown the secular opposition leader within a whisker of breaking the 50-per cent threshold needed for outright victory.

“Don’t despair,” the 74-year-old told his despondent supporters as the outcome became apparent. “We will stand up and take this election together.”

The 28 May runoff will present Kilicdaroglu with a chance to reverse a dire electoral record that has seen him lose his 2009 bid to become mayor of Istanbul and then half a dozen national votes to Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted party.

Study of contrasts

The usually soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu is a study of contrasts to the brash and bombastic Erdogan -- a populist whose gift for campaigning has helped him become Turkey’s longest-serving leader.

Kilicdaroglu’s silver mane and square glasses give him a professorial air that betrays his background as an accountant who worked his way up to head Turkey’s social security agency.

The first stage of the campaign saw him ignore Erdogan’s personal barbs and instead stress the hardships all Turks have suffered over years of political and economic turmoil.

One of his main pledges is to hand over to parliament many of the powers Erdogan has amassed in the last decade of his rule.

The ambitious goal touches on the fear that Erdogan instilled across swathes of Turkey’s society during purges he unleashed after surviving a failed 2016 coup.

It may also never happen. Erdogan’s allies retain a parliamentary majority that can block any attempts to dilute presidential powers.

Kitchen chats

Other elements of his appeal look more enduring.

Kilicdaroglu’s support has been helped in no small part by a cost-of-living crisis that analysts -- and plenty of Turkish voters -- pin on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic beliefs.

But it is backed up by a viral social media campaign that bypasses the state’s stranglehold on television by speaking to voters in snappy clips recorded from his retro-tiled kitchen.

One of the most famous saw Kilicdaroglu break taboos by talking about being Alevi.

The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu (R) meets with the leader of the Victory Party Umit Ozdag (L) at the Victory Party headquarters in Ankara, on 19 May, 2023

The group has been targeted by decades of violent repressions because it follows a more spiritual Islamic tradition that separates it from both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

Erdogan once accused Alevis of inventing a “new religion”.

“God gave me my life,” Kilicdaroglu said in the video. “I am not sinful.”

The late-night post racked up nearly 50 million views on Twitter by the following morning.

Nationalist turn

But Kilicdaroglu also has a steelier side that evokes the nationalism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- the first and most important leader of Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Kilicdaroglu has doubled down on his vow to send nearly four million Syrians who fled civil war back to their homeland.

“As soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home,” he said in his first post-election address.

The promise represents his most concerted attempt yet to win over right-wing voters who propelled Erdogan to win the first round vote.

Kilicdaroglu argues that the migrants issue is not one of “race” but of “resources” during Turkey’s economic troubles.

He tries to soften the message by recalling his own humble upbringing in the Kurdish Alevi province of Tunceli.

He once invited reporters to his pitch-black apartment to discuss his decision to stop paying his electricity bills.

It was a campaign-savvy statement of solidarity with Turkey’s inflation-hit voters that tried to bridge political divides.

“This is my struggle to claim your rights,” he said next to an old-fashioned lantern casting a glow across his desk.