Turkey's Kilicdaroglu may struggle to close gap on Erdogan

While lacking Erdogan's charisma, he has sought to rally voters with an inclusive platform and promises of a democratic reset for the country

Ece Toksabay and Huseyin HayatseverReuters
Published : 15 May 2023, 04:33 PM
Updated : 15 May 2023, 04:33 PM

With the Turkish economy in trouble and six political parties campaigning for him, Kemal Kilicdaroglu had been oozing confidence ahead of elections on Sunday, predicting victory and a new "spring" after Tayyip Erdogan's two decades in power.

But his hopes of leading Turkey into a new era suffered a setback as the first round of the presidential election showed Erdogan with a lead that may prove difficult to overcome ahead of a runoff on May 28.

The head of Turkey's biggest opposition party, the mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu has carried the hopes of those Turkish voters desperate to see an end to Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian rule.

While lacking Erdogan's charisma, he has sought to rally voters with an inclusive platform and promises of a democratic reset for the country of 85 million, including a return to the parliamentary system of government and independence for a judiciary critics say Erdogan has used to crack down on dissent.

  • Kilicdaroglu may struggle to close gap on Erdogan

  • Opposition leader vows to win even after disappointing result

  • Kilicdaroglu has promised new 'spring' for Turkey

He has also promised an end to the unorthodox economic policies which Erdogan's critics say are to blame for dizzying inflation and a cost-of-living crisis that has sapped his popularity, and somewhat smoother relations with the West.

Kilicdaroglu, 74, has shown no sign of yielding following Sunday's first-round results, accusing Erdogan's AK Party of interfering with the counting and reporting of results. The AK Party has denied this.

"Despite all his slanders and insults, Erdogan did not get the result he expected," Kilicdaroglu told supporters as the results came in.

"The election is not won on the balcony," he said, referring to a celebratory address Erdogan delivered to his supporters from his party's headquarters.

"If our nation says there's to be a 'second round', so be it. We will definitely win this election in the second round. Everyone will see it."


Erdogan led with 49.5% of the vote on Sunday - short of the 50% needed to win in the first round. Kilicdaroglu got 45%.

Kilicdaroglu's chances may now hinge on an endorsement from Sinan Ogan, a nationalist who finished third with 5.2%.

But Ogan has said he can only support Kilicdaroglu in the runoff if he agrees to offer no concessions to the pro-Kurdish HDP party, which endorsed Kilicdaroglu for president although it is not part of the opposition alliance.

Detractors say Kilicdaroglu - who is scorned by Erdogan after suffering repeated election defeats as chair of the Republican People's Party (CHP) - lacks his opponent's power to rally audiences and fails to offer a clear vision for a post-Erdogan era.

He has been hoping to build on the opposition's 2019 triumph when the CHP defeated Erdogan's ruling AK Party in Istanbul and other big cities in local elections, thanks to support from other opposition party voters.

Kilicdaroglu sought to rally Turks of different stripes into an alliance including nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals. Critics have questioned whether he could hold together such an alliance in the event of victory.

Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu 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.

A former economist, he became a member of parliament in 2002 when Erdogan's AKP first swept to power, representing the centre-left CHP, a party established by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which has struggled to reach beyond its secularist grassroots toward conservatives.

However, he has spoken in recent years of a desire to heal old wounds with devout Muslims and Kurds.

Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as the CHP's anti-graft campaigner, appearing on TV to brandish dossiers that led to high-profile resignations. A year after losing a mayoral run in Istanbul, he was elected unopposed as party leader in 2010.

His election fuelled party hopes of a new start, but support for the CHP has since failed to surpass about 25%. Erdogan's AK party polled 43% in the last parliamentary elections of 2018.

Still, some view Kilicdaroglu 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.

Critics say he has failed to bring flexibility to a static CHP and, in the end, imposed himself as a presidential candidate over others who polled better head-to-head against Erdogan.

Born in the eastern Tunceli province, Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi, a minority group that follows a faith drawing on Shia Muslim, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions.

Last month he openly acknowledged this on social media, seeking to blunt any political attacks given that Alevis' beliefs put them at odds with Turkey's Sunni Muslim majority.

Nicknamed by 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.