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Course change

May 25, 2010

A man dubbed Turkey's 'Gandhi' is set to become the leader of the country's opposition People's Republic Party (CHP) after the resignation of the center-left party's longstanding leader.

Kemal Kilacdaroglu
Kilicdaroglu is the sole candidate for the leadership of the pro-secular Republican People's PartyImage: AP

The new leader of the Turkey's main opposition is being heralded by much of the media as the Turkish 'Gandhi'. Kemal Kilacdaroglu earned his nickname because of his slight frame and mild demeanor and tendency to reject ostentation. His election is being heralded as a potential earthquake in Turkish politics.

Sixty-one year-old Kilacdaroglu was elected leader of the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) with a massive majority. In his first speech Kilacdaroglu promised to bring his party back to its roots.

“We will fight corruption in a real sense and bring injustice to an end,” Kilicdaroglu said. “We will combat unemployment and poverty from the very beginning."

Sex scandal

Deniz Baykal, who led the party for nearly 20 years, was forced to quit earlier this May over a video posted on the Internet that allegedly showed him having an affair with a female CHP lawmaker. Under Baykal the party shifted to the nationalist right and mainly engaged the ruling AK party over policies that he claimed were aimed at undermining Turkey's secular state.

Former party chairman Deniz Baykal
Former party chairman resigned following the release of sex videotapeImage: picture alliance/dpa

With Kilacdaroglu's ascent, those days seem to be over. The new, more mild-mannered leader didn't mention secularism once in his opening speech, focusing instead on social injustice. That shift in tone, says political columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish daily Milliyet, could be a winning formula.

"There is a public out there which is clamoring for change in the CHP. And therefore it may very well be Mr Kilacdaroglu who is the man that can transform the party", said Idiz.

Kilicdaroglu's background, too, is very different for Turkish politics. He is an Alevi - which means he is a member of a progressive Islamic sect which is often discriminated against by orthodox Muslims in Turkey. He also comes from a predominantly Kurdish region of the country.

In his first speech he committed his party to reducing the ten percent electoral threshold which effectively bars Kurdish regional parties from gaining entry in parliament.

Kilacdaroglu also has a humble reputation, dressing modestly and preferring public transport to chauffeur-driven limousines. And crucially, in a country continually hit by corruption scandals, he has made his political name exposing high-level government graft, forcing two senior resignations from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

National elections

An opinion poll published last week suggested that Kiladaroglu's appointment would attract more votes. With national elections due next year the ruling AK Party is facing its first serious contender since it came to power eight years ago. Turkish media say that's good for democracy.

It remains unclear whether Kilacdaroglu can maintain his political momentum, and critics point out he has given few policy details. Moreover, his quite demeanor could mean he'll wither in the cut and thrust of Turkish politics, But with just over a year to go to general elections, he has a momentum and has given belief back to his party, on which has been out of power for more than 3 decades.

Author: Dorian Jones (nrt)

Editor: Rob Turner