Kemal Kilicdaroglu looks just the opposite of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A mild-looking man, of medium height and build, endowed with a simple oratory, always wearing eyeglasses and who, despite only five years of difference, appears much older than his rival. In short, he is an ordinary man compared to the imposing figure of the Turkish president, almost two meters tall, with a past as an amateur athlete and bombastic rhetoric, who always wants to appear as the strong man with boundless ambitions.
Not that the intentions of the opposition candidate, who is preparing to put an end to the sultan’s twenty years in the ballot, have less grandiose intentions. “When I take power, democracy will come, money will flow into the country, the exchange rate will recover and your purchasing power will increase,” he promised last April in a famous video shot in the kitchen of the Kilicdaroglu home, in which the head of The Turkish opposition undertook to keep track of the expenditure, like any other person.
A marching accountant
After all, accounting is his subject, so much so that in 1994 a local magazine named him “Bureaucrat of the Year”. Born 74 years ago into a family of the Alevi religious minority then residing in the Nazimiye district of the province of Tunceli, in eastern Turkey – which he continues to call “Dersim”, the feudal name of the region in the Ottoman era – he grew up in different cities of the Central-Eastern Anatolia: Ercis, Tunceli, Genc and Elazig, where together with his mother Yemus Hanim and six brothers he was forced to follow his father who was employed in the land registry. Graduated from the Ankara Academy of Economic and Commercial Sciences in 1971, after completing his studies he began an administrative career at the Ministry of Finance, where in 1983 he first became head of department and in the following years deputy director of the Directorate General of Revenue.
His career in administration then continued with his arrival in 1991 at the Bag-Kur pension fund for artisans and self-employed workers, of which he became general manager the following year, before being appointed for a short period as deputy undersecretary of the ministry of Labour. Arrived at the top of the public social security institute Ssk (today Sgk, ed), at the beginning of 1999 he resigned to undertake, with poor results, a political career in the Demokratik Sol Party (Democratic Left, ed) then led by premier Bulent Ecevit.
A part-time lecturer at Hacettepe University in Ankara, he was also a board member of the private lender Isbank before joining the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the oldest political movement in the country founded by the father of the country Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and among whose ranks he was elected deputy for Istanbul in 2002, gaining a reputation as an intransigent politician against corruption. Taking advantage of this reputation, in 2009 he tried to run for mayor of the Turkish megalopolis, without success. But the following year he managed to conquer the leadership of the party, succeeding the previous secretary Deniz Baykal, who was forced to resign due to a sex scandal.
Since then he has led the CHP, which he has increasingly distanced from the Kemalist roots to transform it into a social democratic movement, without forgetting the nationalist demands to reach the popular base of Erdogan’s party, the Akp. However, this approach did not immediately translate into votes, even if it gained him great personal popularity which he then exploited in recent years.
In particular in 2017, a year after the attempted coup attributed by Erdogan to his former ally Fethullah Gulen and used as an excuse to jail opponents and fire thousands of civil servants critical of his government. Earning a comparison with Gandhi, the then 68-year-old president of the Republican Popular Party, marched on foot covering the 420 kilometers between Ankara and Istanbul in 25 days to ask for justice in the name of Enis Berberoglu, a CHP deputy and journalist sentenced to 25 years in prison (later released in 2018) for leaking some images of Turkish secret services delivering weapons to Syrian rebels. The initiative was a success and became the basis on which Kilicdaroglu was able to build not only a personal consensus but also gradually unite the opposition.
The first test was the local elections of 2019, when it managed to ally the CHP with the center-right Iyi party, the ultra-conservative Saadet and the main pro-Kurdish movement still legal in the country, the HDP. The coalition was a success, managing to wrest large cities such as Ankara, Smyrna, Adana, Antalya and Istanbul from Erdogan’s AKP, led by another rising star of Turkish politics, the mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, whom many hoped could lead the opposition in the May 14 election against Erdogan. An internal threat thwarted once again by Kilicdaroglu thanks to his diplomatic skills. In fact, his name seemed to be the only one capable of bringing together the so-called “Table of Six”, the alliance of opposition movements that challenged the Sultan in the first round, forcing him into a historic ballot.
The politics of the onion
He succeeded also thanks to his appearance of normality, exploited above all on social networks where he collects over three million followers. Like last April 9 when one of his went viral video filmed in the kitchen of his house, where in shirt sleeves and with an onion in his hand he explained his economic policy program under the banner of the slogan: “I promise you, spring will come back”. Strengthened by his studies and his economic experience in public administration, Kilicdaroglu intends to return to traditional measures and abandon the so-called Erdoganomics. In the last years of his twenty years in power, the Turkish president has tried to make the economy more competitive internationally, devaluing the lira and practicing unorthodox monetary policies, thus increasing inflation (which has grown by 195 percent since 2013) and aggravating the economic crisis (GDP has fallen by more than 10 percent in a decade), worsened by the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s simple,” explained the leader of the opposition at the time. “Today a kilo of onions costs 30 lire, if (Erdogan) remains in power it will reach 100. But it is always and only onions”. It may seem like a joke but the choice of this vegetable was not accidental. According to data from the Union of Turkish Agricultural Chambers, in 2022 this product underwent the highest price increase in the food category reaching an annual rate of 314.6 percent, more than seven times the official rate of inflation which , according to the Turkish Statistical Institute (Tuik), was 43.68 percent in April. “What they described as their ‘period of dominance’ in the last election dragged our country into collapse in every field,” he commented in the footage.
A relaxation attributed by some exponents of his coalition also to Erdogan’s migration policies, which have allowed the Sultan to exploit Syrian refugees to blackmail Europe and obtain billions of euros in aid but which have brought home over 3.6 million foreigners, who Kilicdaroglu now promises to repatriate. While assuring that he wanted to meet all their security needs, a few days before the first round the opposition candidate reiterated that “all Syrians will be deported within two years”, unlike Erdogan who instead continued to focus on “voluntary return” of refugees at home.
Kilicdaroglu’s position may seem at odds with the promise to bring democracy back to Turkey, relaunching civil liberties. But taking a look at his coalition, the reason for this controversial proposal is well understood. In fact, he leads a coalition of parties so heterogeneous that in case of victory, so he promised, he will govern with as many as seven vice-presidents, including the current mayors of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, and Ankara, Mansur Yavas. This is primarily supported by the parties of the “Table of Six”: the aforementioned center-right movement Iyi and the ultra-conservatives of Saadet, to which are added the moderate pro-Europeans of the Demokrat Parti and the exiles from the Akp of the former minister of the Economy, Ali Babacan, leader of the Party for Democracy and Progress (Deva), and former premier Ahmet Davutoglu, who leads the Party of the Future (GP). In the runoff he will seek the support of the ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan, who attributes all of Turkey’s economic problems to immigrants. With similar traveling companions it is not surprising that, in terms of nationalism, the vision advocated by the alliance led by Kilicdaroglu does not seem to deviate too much from that of Erdogan, if not in the approach to the West, which he promises to get closer to. So much so that some consider him a kind of new Zelensky.
The new Z?
While supporting (and arming) Ukraine and remaining a firm NATO ally, in the last decade the Sultan has progressively drawn closer to Russia and Iran, with whom he has set up a high-level dialogue to resolve the conflict in Syria (supporting its return to the Arab League), without supporting US policies to contain China.
On the contrary, Kilicdaroglu has repeatedly promised that, in addition to defeating corruption, he will pursue a foreign policy of rapprochement with the European Union, the United States and NATO, just like the Ukrainian president did in Kiev. Not only that, the opposition candidate has also announced, in case of victory, the restoration of relations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. All policies promoted by his two former Akp allies, Babacan and Davutoglu, who for years served as economy and foreign ministers (and prime minister) under Erdogan, promoting the failed measures that caused the economic crisis and international tensions with allies and neighbours, and for which he is much criticized by the formations further to the left of the Chp.
The weaknesses of his training, however, are not limited only to questionable companions. Despite his reputation as an honest and intransigent politician, even his party still has to deal with episodes of corruption linked above all to the municipalities he administers and which have alienated the vote of many disillusioned young people, whose request is for real change. Who knows if Kilicdaroglu will be able to embody it.