Elections in Turkey: who is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, “Gandhi Kemal”, the unexpected leader who can end Erdogan

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (REUTERS/Murad Sezer) (MURAD SEZER/)

Kemal Kilicdaroglu He is not an obvious candidate for president. He comes across as a humble man. His voice is calm and he never interrupts his interlocutor. Such is his calm temper and his slight resemblance to the Indian revolutionary-aided by his glasses-that he has earned the nickname of Gandhi Kemal.

His austere campaign videos shot from his own kitchen with tea towels hanging behind him have made him the anti erdoganTurkey’s president since 2014 and the country’s strongman since he became prime minister a decade earlier, who found in this 74-year-old economist from the alevi minority of islam a worthy and unexpected candidate who could remove him from power after two decades of political dominance and more than a dozen electoral victories.

“Kilicdaroglu is the hope of the people,” shout his supporters, most of them young. The polls position him with a slight advantage in this first round and a possible victory on May 28 in the second, which would be reached if none of the candidates obtains more than 50% of the votes.

The opposition leader Republican People’s Party (CHP) this at the head of the National Alliance made up of six parties. He is a serious and austere former public official, during his campaign he promised that he would lead a life very different from that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and that he would refuse to live in the presidential palace, in favor of a more modest residence. “I’m just like you,” she says simply.

The inflation which reached 85% last year and the rising cost of living are the main concerns of the Turks today, and the biggest critics of Erdogan. Kilicdaroglu promised solutions, with a return to more orthodox economic policies.

“I know that people are struggling to get ahead. I know the cost of living and the hopelessness of young people,” Kilicdaroglu said at a rally last week. “The time for change has come. A new spirit and a renewed understanding are necessary.

The opposition leader the Republican People's Party (CHP) is at the head of the National Alliance (REUTERS / Murad Sezer)
The opposition leader the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is at the head of the National Alliance (REUTERS / Murad Sezer) (MURAD SEZER /)

It also seeks a return to the parliamentary system of government and the independence of the judiciary. Today in Turkey anyone can go to jail for insulting the president. “I tell young people that they can criticize me freely. I will make sure they have this right,” said the man who has survived several violent attacks, earning a reputation as one of the most targeted politicians in the country.

He was beaten twice before giving a speech in parliament in 2014. He suffered a bruise on cheek and eye. Two years later his convoy was attacked with a missile by the Kurdish militant group PKK. In 2017, she escaped from an attempted bombing by ISIS. In 2019, she survived a attempted lynching during the funeral of a soldier in Ankara. His response was always calm and tending to call for calm.

Born in December 1948 in the eastern province of Tunceli and the fourth of seven children, Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi, a minority group that follows a faith grounded in Anatolian, Sufi and Shiite Muslim folk traditions. The son of a housewife and civil servant, he was always an outstanding student, and later decided to study economics at Ankara University.

He worked for years as a civil servant in Turkish financial organizations. As director of the Social Security Institution he was known for his efforts to eliminate corruption.

He spent seven years in parliament before running in the Istanbul mayoral race, which he lost, but which set him up in his fledgling political career.

After the CHP’s then-leader was forced to resign over a scandal that arose from the leak of a video revealing an affair, Kilicdaroglu reluctantly applied and won.

Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a rally on May 11 (REUTERS / Murad Sezer)
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a rally on May 11 (REUTERS/Murad Sezer) (MURAD SEZER/)

He has been in charge for 13 years and has made several changes, such as erase the military spirit that characterized his party, eliminate unnecessary expenses and diversify it through the incorporation of different religious figures and activists for women’s rights.

These elections will not only decide who will lead Turkey, but what role the country can play in easing the conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East. Kilicdaroglu promised smoother relations with the West and a firmer stance against Putin compared to Erdogan, who has positioned himself as a mediator between the two parties.

“We will create a policy within the framework of what the interests of Turkey require. We are a political party that believes that the foreign policy currently being followed is not in favor of Turkey,” she said during an interview with Guardian. “We know that Ukraine has been unfairly invaded. Therefore, we support them in that sense. We would provide any kind of political support that is needed.”

If he wins, Kilicdaroglu faces challenges holding together the opposition alliance, made up of nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals.

But the truth is that Erdogan seems to be closer than ever to defeat with a profile every time more authoritariancompared to that of Kilicdaroglu, who promises to restore democracy.

“This election is about rebuilding Turkey, ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry. This is about ensuring gender equality,” Kilicdaroglu said at a rally in the CHP stronghold of Izmir, in the west of the country. “These elections are about reconciliation and not conflict. And these elections are about bringing democracy to Türkiye.”

Divisions within the opposition have long helped Erdogan stay in power, but this time Kilicdaroglu is running as a candidate from a united bloc, securing the tacit support of the pro-Kurdish party.

Erdogan, who has led Turkey as prime minister and president since 2003, faces the most challenging election of his 20 years in power (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo)
Erdogan, who has led Turkey as prime minister and president since 2003, faces the most challenging election of his 20 years of power (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo) (Goran Tomasevic/)

And with the recent resignation of candidate Muharrem Ince, who announced on Thursday that he is withdrawing from the race, Kilicdaroglu’s chances increase even further.

In addition, another factor that works against the current Turkish president is the devastating February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and exposed years of government neglectdue to its lax application of the building code. Some 658,000 people were left without work, according to the International Labor Organization.

The 7.8 magnitude quake destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 buildings, with hundreds of thousands of residents sheltering in temporary accommodation such as tents. This also explains the anti-immigration sentiment of the opposition candidate, whose alliance promises to deport millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees living in Turkey.

Refugees were welcomed with open arms in Türkiye, but the rejection of immigrants It is increasing every day in the midst of the economic recession, due to the shortage of housing and shelters in the provinces affected by the earthquake, which has increased calls for Syrian refugees to leave.

Kilicdaroglu said he will seek European Union funds to build houses, schools, hospitals and roads in Syria, and will encourage Turkish businessmen to open factories and other businesses there. But, ultimately, the promised objective is ambitious and not very well seen from the West: deport 2 million refugees to Syria in two years.

Erdogan, who has led Turkey as prime minister and president since 2003, is facing the most challenging election in his 20 years in power. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is the candidate who patiently and calmly waited for the right moment. And it looks like that day might have come.

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