"Gandhi Kemal" challenges Turkey’s longest serving President

"Gandhi Kemal" challenges Turkey’s longest serving President
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Born in the eastern Tunceli province to Alevi parents, the joint opposition candidate in Turkey’s upcoming presidential elections has a reputation as an ethical, non-corrupt bureaucrat

Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu believes his time may have come to rule in Turkey after an opposition alliance on Monday named him a candidate to challenge President Tayyip Erdogan in a May 14 election seen as perhaps the most consequential in Turkey's modern history.

Kilicdaroglu's opponents say he lacks Erdogan's ability to mobilize and captivate audiences and has no clear or compelling vision of what a post-Erdogan era might look like, but his supporters emphasize his reputation as an ethical, non-corrupt bureaucrat.

Polls point to a close presidential and parliamentary election that will decide not only who leads Turkey, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed, and what role it can play in international conflicts.

Still, many wonder if the earnest and sometimes temperamental former official can defeat Erdogan, the country's longest-serving leader whose charisma in campaigning has contributed to more than a dozen electoral victories in two decades.

Initial polls since the quakes had suggested that Erdogan was able to largely retain his support despite the disaster. But the emergence of a united opposition, even after a delay in picking its candidate, could prove a bigger challenge for the strongman, analysts say.

However, the economic hardship presents a historic opening for Kilicdaroglu, a former economist, to end Erdogan's reign that began when AKP first came to power in 2002.

He has spoken in recent years of a desire to heal old wounds with devout Muslims and Kurds, including groups in Diyarbakir that he met and acknowledged that CHP had upset in the past.

But Kilicdaroglu has struggled to maintain momentum. Recent polling showed Erdogan's support had edged up since last summer thanks to measures including a raise in the minimum wage and other economic stimuli.


Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as the CHP's anti-graft campaigner, appearing on TV to brandish dossiers against officials which led to high-profile resignations. In 2009 he lost an election as the CHP's Istanbul mayoral candidate.

The following year, he was elected unopposed as CHP leader after his predecessor's resignation in the wake of scandal.

At that party convention, a campaign song blasted across a packed hall describing him as "a clean and honest" man.

His election fuelled party hopes of a new start, but support for CHP has since failed to surpass about 25%.

Still, Kilicdaroglu is viewed as having quietly reformed the party and sidelined hardcore "Kemalists" espousing a rigid version of the ideas of Ataturk, while promoting members seen as more closely aligned with European social democratic values.


Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu, 74, worked in the finance ministry and then chaired Turkey's Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s. In speeches, Erdogan frequently disparages his performance in that role.

Born in the eastern Tunceli province, he is a civil servant's son and an Alevi, a group which makes up 15-20% of Turkey's 85 million population and which follows a faith drawing on Shi'ite Muslim, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions.

Kilicdaroglu has acknowledged being Alevi but generally avoids the issue. Alevis' beliefs put them at odds with the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

Nicknamed by the Turkish media as "Gandhi Kemal" because of a passing resemblance with his slight, bespectacled appearance, he captured the public imagination in 2017 when he launched his 450 km "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul over the arrest of a CHP deputy.

Kilcdaroglu orchestrated the CHP alliance with the Good Party and the Felicity Party in 2018 general elections, paving the way to the local election success the following year.

In Erdogan's first substantial blow as AKP leader, the CHP won mayoralties in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities thanks to the alliance and support of voters from a big pro-Kurdish party.