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Who is Erdogan challenger Kilicdaroglu?

Gulsen Solaker | Burak Ünveren
March 8, 2023

The Turkish opposition has nominated a candidate to run against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the election scheduled for May. More about presidential hopeful Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, man at a lectern speaks into a microphone and points into the audience with his finger.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu is to take on Turkey's incumbent president in MayImage: Dilara SenkayaREUTERS

The opposition had long been searching for a joint candidate to challenge longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the upcoming election in Turkey. It seems to have finally found him: Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu will run against Erdogan in the May 14 election.

Who is the man they hope will oust Erdogan, who has been in power for more than 20 years?

'Bureaucrat of the Year'

Kemal Kilicdaroglu was born the son of a civil servant in 1948 in a village in the eastern Anatolian province of Tunceli. His family is Alevi, which is an ethnic-religious minority in Turkey. He was the fourth of seven children, and the only one who went on to university. Kilicdaroglu graduated in Ankara with a degree in economics and finance, his first job in 1971 was as an advisor to the Turkish Ministry of Treasury and Finance. He worked his way up the Turkish administration, and was named director of the social security authority SSK — in 2006 replaced by the SGK— in 1992. Two years later, a financial magazine chose him as "Bureaucrat of the Year." He retired in 1999.

A black-and-white image of Kilicdaroglu as a child
Kilicdaroglu as a childImage: DHA

He is known for his honesty and reliability — qualities that are not to be taken for granted in politics, especially in Turkey. As a bureaucrat, he fought corruption. Thanks to his many years in the insurance business, he is said to be skilled at finding the proverbial needle in a haystack: "In a room full of official documents, Kilicdaroglu can quickly identify any irregularities and corruption," a CHP member told DW, adding that "staying honest in the process is not only a virtue, but also a necessity."

A new career in politics

Kilicdaroglu made a public name for himself as the bureaucrat who was tough on corruption. His political career began with a report on corruption he had prepared for the pro-secular, center-left CHP — the report was well received by then-party leader Deniz Baykal and prompted Kilicdaroglu's move to politics. He won a seat in the Turkish parliament in the 2002 election, the year incumbent President Erdogan came to power.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (center) stand with two other men on a stage, hold up their joined hands in triumph
Nominated to run for the presidency Image: Evrim Aydin/AA/picture alliance

In 2007, he became deputy speaker of the CHP's parliamentary group. His media presence increased significantly after he published evidence of corruption in Turkey. A few heated arguments with several deputies from Erdogan's conservative AKP party boosted his renown. In 2009, he ran for Istanbul's mayoral office, but lost to an AKP candidate.

Party leader thanks to a sex tape

A sex scandal cost longtime CHP party leader Baykal his office in 2010. Kilicdaroglu ran as a candidate for the party lead and received all 1,189 valid votes at the party congress. But although the vast majority of CHP supporters backed his candidacy at the time, his popularity has waned since. Today, the party base is divided when it comes to its leader.

In 2017, Kilicdaroglu's fame spread beyond Turkey when he walked from Ankara to Istanbul. Along with his supporters, he traversed about 450 kilometers (280 miles) as part of the "March for Justice" protest campaign to draw attention to increasing repressions by the AKP government. A prison sentence for CHP politician and journalist Enis Berberoglu sparked the 25-day march.

A long 'March for Justice' reaches Istanbul

'I never get upset'

Kilicdaroglu, who could become Turkey's 13th president, is also known for staying calm. His nicknames include "Gandhi Kemal", or "Turkey's Gandhi" — for his supposed resemblance in looks and style to Mahatma Gandhi — the "quiet force" and "democratic uncle."

He never gets upset, he once said in an interview. "He is nice and very calm — a little too calm," his wife Selvi Kilicdaroglu said. "Kemal never raises his voice, he never shouts. You can't even have a decent argument with him. The fact that he is so quiet sometimes really drives me crazy."

He has reportedly been the subject of more physical attacks and assassination attempts than any other politician in Turkey. That includes a 2019 attempt to lynch him in Ankara. A CHP politician told DW how he remembered Kilicdaroglu after the attack: "We waited outside his door. He came out. There were bruises on his face. He didn't look unhappy at all. He invited us to his office and ordered us tea. Told us not to blow things out of proportion. We were angrier and more agitated than he was. But he stayed completely calm, as if we were the ones who had survived an attempted lynching, not him."

Kemal Kilicdaroglu holding up two sheets of paper that appear to be evidence
People know Kemal Kilicdaroglu as a politician who fought corruptionImage: DHA

Kilicdaroglu also survived an armed attack by the Kurdish militia PKK, an attack in parliament, and an attempted IS (Islamic State) bombing while on his 2017 March for Justice.

Is he the best candidate?

Despite his positive image, the public has for years charged Kilicdaroglu with not being charismatic enough to be a fitting alternative to Erdogan.

The six-party opposition alliance was of two minds about his candidacy. The CHP and five other opposition parties have been working together for more than a year to increase their chances of winning against Erdogan. The parties gathered several times for "Table of Six" meetings.

From left to right: Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party Ali Babacan, Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Felicity Party (Saadet) Temel Karamollaoglu, IYI Party Meral Aksener,  Future Party (Gelecek) Ahmet Davutoglu, and Democratic Party (DP) Gultekin Uysal
From left to right: Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party Ali Babacan, Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Felicity Party (Saadet) Temel Karamollaoglu, IYI Party Meral Aksener, Future Party (Gelecek) Ahmet Davutoglu, and Democratic Party (DP) Gultekin Uysal belong to the Turkish opposition allianceImage: ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Table of Six almost became a Table of Five when the second-largest party, the right-wing nationalist Good Party (IYI) threatened to leave the alliance after it became clear that Kilicdaroglu would be nominated. IYI leader Meral Aksener had been campaigning against Kilicdaroglu's candidacy for months, arguing that someone who "can win against Erdogan should run." In her opinion, Kilicdaroglu did not fit the bill. In fact, Kilicdaroglu has never won an election.

After a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the crisis in the opposition seems to have been resolved for the time being. Aksener is back at the table saying she supports Kilicdaroglu's candidacy. Time will tell whether the strained alliance will suffice for an electoral victory in May.

This article was originally written in German.

Burak Ünveren standing in a newsroom, wearing a suit
Burak Ünveren Multimedia editor with a focus on Turkish foreign policy and German-Turkish relations.