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Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the “quiet force” who challenges Recep Tayyip Erdogan

For the first time in 20 years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face a single opposition candidacy in the May 14 presidential election. At 74, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, presented as “the anti-Erdogan”, knew how to revolutionize the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in an attempt to attract new fringes of the population, sometimes minorities. Portrait.

Kemal Kiliçdaroglu is a discreet man. The Turkish “quiet force”. The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP, social democrat), was chosen by the Table of Six, bringing together the six opposition parties to face Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the presidential election on May 14 in Turkey .

Little known on the international scene, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, 74, has been a familiar face in Turkish politics for many years. His political career began in 2002. This economist by training, a former senior civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, was elected deputy for Istanbul of the CHP, founded in 1923 by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

“It is the absolute antithesis of Erdogan. Not only politically, but also personally, underlines on the set of France 24, Marc Semo, former correspondent in Turkey and journalist at Le Monde. Faced with a flamboyant Erdogan, “bling bling” , whose family and loved ones have become very rich, he is a rather austere man, gentle, calm, cultured and always very discreet”.

His image as a reserved intellectual contrasts with that of the outgoing president who has established himself as the country’s strongman for 20 years. Recep Tayyip Erdogan ironically nicknamed him “Bay Kemal” (“Mister Kemal”), bay being traditionally reserved for foreigners.

“He is often criticized for his lack of charisma, continues Didier Billion, deputy director of Iris and specialist in Turkey. Probably, he does not have the same as Erdogan, however he is not a default for this election campaign for a very simple reason: Turkish society has been deliberately polarized by Erdogan for many years. A very large part of the population, of the electorate, needs to calm things down”.

“Anti-charisma can be a charisma, insists Marc Semo. In a situation like that of Turkey today – the fact that he speaks like everyone else, as his wife says, “it is difficult to yelling at him “- that can be a trump card”.

The progressive metamorphosis of the CHP

In a few years, the discreet Kemal Kiliçdaroglu has managed to impose himself in the public debate. In 2007, already vice-president of the CHP, he began to be talked about by denouncing acts of corruption within the AKP , the Justice and Development Party. The Prime Minister is none other Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In 2009, he failed in the conquest of the town hall of Istanbul against the AKP candidate Kadir Topbaş but achieved the best score of his party until then in this city. His frail silhouette and his physical resemblance to the Indian cantor of non-violence earned him the nickname of “Turkish Gandhi”. A year later, he resigned from the vice-presidency of the CHP in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to run for the head of the party whose president, Deniz Baykal, was forced to resign for a sex scandal. Support is massive: he obtains 1,189 of the 1,250 votes cast. During his first speech, he promises that his party’s first fight “will be to abolish poverty in Turkey”.

To seduce more, the new president does not hesitate to set aside the defense of secularism, the cornerstone of Atatürk’s party as well as the nationalist heritage. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu thus attracts the Kurds, who have been sidelined for a long time, but also the conservatives. For the first time, veiled women entered the CHP. Enough to cringe in its own ranks, but above all a way to seduce an electorate traditionally won over to the AKP.

In 2017, it is the turning point. He begins a 450 km march between Ankara and Istanbul to denounce the imprisonment of a CHP deputy, Enis Berberoglu, sentenced to 25 years in prison for having provided the opposition newspaper Cumhurriyet with confidential information. His only watchword? Justice. “We marched for justice, we marched for the rights of the oppressed, we marched for imprisoned deputies, we marched for imprisoned journalists, we marched for sacked academics”, proclaims Kemal Kiliçdaroglu who denounces “the power of one man”. “The march for justice, he did it on foot. He gave of himself. He discussed with people, he listened”, insists Marc Semo. The climate is then not yet one of confrontation,

In 2019, the CHP won the town halls of several major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara. It is the end of 25 years of reign of the AKP and President Erdogan. On the strength of these victories, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu hardened his tone. In April 2022, to protest against the increase in electricity prices, he stopped paying the bills. In his apartment plunged into darkness, the future candidate is on the side of the most modest. “This is my fight for your rights. The rich have become richer and the poor, poorer!”, he says.

He wants to impose himself as the Mr. Clean, the man of probity. He accuses the Turkish Statistical Institute of underestimating inflation figures, officially estimated at 85% in October 2022. Independent economists from the Inflation Research Group (Enag) have established the rise in inflation. price at 137.5% over twelve months in December, 170.7% in November.

Gatherer, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu could also seduce minorities. He was born in the historically rebellious region of Dersim (now Tunceli, in the east), predominantly Kurdish and Alevi, from which 20% of the population comes. “This stronghold of the Alevi was deeply repressed in the 1930s by Mustafa Kemal. This current of Shiite Islam, deeply marked by an animist influence, was persecuted for a long time by the Ottoman Empire whose sultan was the commander of the believers” , explains Marc Semo.

“If he were elected, he would be the first Alevi to take over the Turkish presidency,” recalls Ludovic de Foucaud, France 24 correspondent in Istanbul. Quite a symbol in a country where minorities feel discriminated against. “All the minorities find themselves in him, insists Marc Semo. He very often calls for a work of collective memory on everything that has happened since the beginning of the Republic. It may have been, according to him, a little tough with its minorities, especially the Kurds”. “It is typically the file of considerable importance on which, calmly, for years, he has made his party evolve, continues Didier Billion. He is in touch with Turkish society”.

But its origins could also become a handicap, as the Alevis are still sometimes considered heretics by the most rigorous Sunni Muslims. An angle of attack that Recep Tayipp Erdogan could use in the campaign to weaken him.

Presidential in Turkey 🇹🇷:

“The master asset of the AKP is #Erdogan himself”, according to our correspondent @ludovicdf , guest of #DebatF24 this Wednesday evening.

The #DebatF24 in replay here ➡️ https://t.co/m8OrCG1mRi pic.twitter.com/I4a3B8zrQ8

– The Debate – France 24 (@DebatF24) March 8, 2023
Still, while many would have preferred to see the popular mayors of Istanbul or Ankara, Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, knighted against the outgoing president, all agree that he is one of the few able to rally the opposition. “Kemal Kiliçdaroglu’s strength is not his personality, but that of his opponent, believes Ludovic de Foucaud. The opposition wants to insist on what he is proposing: he is not a man, but a project. They want put an end to the “one man rule”, this kind of ultra vertical, presidentialist, Caesarist system as some would say, that Erdogan built around him”.

Source : france24.com