Meet Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s long-derided opposition head who could dethrone Erdogan

The leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, who will face off against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in presidential elections May 14, is a far more complex figure than meets the eye.

On Nov. 23, 2011, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to formally apologize for the massacres by the Turkish military of thousands of civilians in the eastern province of Tunceli in 1938. The genocidal campaign against the region’s Alevi Kurds, bombing people from the air, gassing them in caves, and bayoneting them to save bullets, remains the darkest stain on the modern Turkish Republic.

Erdogan’s words were dismissed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as yet another cynical ploy to discredit their party and its founder, Kemal Ataturk, the Western-leaning father of modern Turkey. Today, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP’s current leader and an Alevi Kurd from Tunceli, whose forebears were among the victims, is the main opposition bloc’s candidate to run against Turkey’s strongman. More likely than not, Erdogan will use Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi faith to demonize him with majority Sunni voters ahead of watershed presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held in tandem on May 14.

The paradox captures Erdogan’s dramatic shift from the country’s greatest reformer to brutal oppressor, while the CHP has gone the opposite way — from ordering the mass slaughter of Alevis in Tunceli to elevating one to its leadership for the first time.

The stakes have never been higher as the country prepares to mark its first hundred years as a republic on Oct. 29. The elections will determine whether Turkey will continue its descent into dictatorship under Erdogan or reverse course. The system is rigged wholly in Erdogan’s favor. Yet opinion polls suggest the race will be tight with some showing the gap widening in the opposition’s favor. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) decision this week to not field its own presidential candidate may give the opposition a critical boost provided that enough Kurdish voters turn out to vote for Kilicdaroglu instead. It's far from guaranteed.

Sitting at the intersection of Europe and the Middle East, Turkey is, as showcased by the war in Ukraine, of indisputable strategic importance. Yet for all its regional swagger and vaunted killer drones, Turkey has rarely looked as vulnerable.

The economy is reeling from two-digit inflation. Erdogan’s fixation with low interest rates has gutted the national currency. February’s massive earthquakes have dealt a further crippling blow. The World Bank reckons it will take at least $100 billion to mitigate the damage.

Relations with Turkey’s NATO allies are at an all-time low. Rule of law has evaporated. Corruption is rampant. Torture and death in police custody are back. Kilicdaroglu is pledging to reverse this downward spiral by dismantling Erdogan’s single-man system in favor of parliamentary rule. Is the 74-year-old up to the task? Can he beat Erdogan?

Up until recently, the answer was an emphatic “no.” Alan Makovsky, a widely respected American analyst of Turkish affairs and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, noted that Kilicdaroglu is “in contrast to the overpowering Erdogan a reticent and cautious man, a gradualist trying to make his way in a political landscape that traditionally rewards the strong and often bombastic, and those quick with a bold stroke.” Makovsky told Al-Monitor, “Virtually nobody thought Kilicdaroglu could lead the CHP to the promised land.”  However, he added, it now seems possible that “this guy we all considered a cipher may have the last laugh.”

Kilicdaroglu was born in an airy stone cottage in Ballica, a remote mountain hamlet in Tunceli’s Nazimiye district that housed a vibrant Armenian community prior to their mass destruction by Ottoman forces in 1915. Ballica was emptied along with thousands of other villages during the army’s scorched earth campaign against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels in the 1990s. 

Kilcdaroglu and his six siblings grew up hearing of the horrors endured in 1938 while their father, Kamran, with only a primary school education, was sent by the government from one eastern backwater to the other to perform clerical duties. Kamran hailed from the Kureysan tribe, which claims to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed and whose leader was among those executed during the upheaval in Dersim — Tunceli’s original name before it was Turkified. Renowned Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen told Al-Monitor, “The Kureysan are the most prominent 'ocak' (lineage of hereditary religious specialists known as 'dedes') of the Dersim Alevis.” 

The family was poor and life was hard. Kilicdaroglu would work in watermelon fields and sell eggs boiled in onion skins to give them color at the local train station where, by his own telling, he would seek to sate his curiosity about the world beyond.

In school, Kilicdaroglu stood out with his excellent grades and probity. An older brother, Yusuf Ziya, recalled in an interview with this reporter in Ballica in 2011 that “Kemal would grasp in a single go what took me three to grasp. He would help me in class but would never let me cheat.” A voracious reader, Kilicdaroglu inhaled works by celebrated authors Nazim Hikmet and Kerime Nadir.

His intellectual side is palpable in the modest Ankara flat he shares with his wife and maternal cousin, Selvi. The apartment in Ankara’s Cukurambar neighborhood is filled with books and artwork. Clad in his signature white shirt, Kilicdaroglu sits in the outdated kitchen to tape soothing speeches addressed to the nation.

Kilicdaroglu earned a finance degree from Ankara’s Academy of Economic and Commercial Sciences and joined the bureaucracy as a tax inspector in 1971, rising to become the general manager of the Social Insurances Institution (SSK) — the Turkish equivalent of the United States’ Social Security Administration. Erdogan likes to seize on the insolvency of the SSK during his tenure to argue that Kilicdaroglu is unfit to run Turkey. It was more likely due to the fact that the age of retirement was 33 at the time.

A report he penned after retiring in 1999 on how to tackle corruption in the public sector caught the interest of the CHP. Kilicdaroglu ran on the party’s ticket in the 2002 elections and won — the same year the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power. His unrelenting scrutiny of government graft forced two AKP lawmakers to resign.

In 2010, Kilicdaroglu was elected CHP leader after incumbent Deniz Baykal was caught with his secretary on a spy camera in a hotel room wearing only his underwear.

During 12 years at the helm, Kilicdaroglu has failed to increase the CHP’s vote nationally, scoring 22.6% to the AKP’s 42.5% in the last parliamentary elections in 2018. His controversial alliance in 2014 with Erdogan’s current ally, the Far-Right Nationalist Movement Party, fared no better. Should he lose this election as well, his leadership of the CHP will hang by a thread.

With only weeks left before balloting, Kilicdaroglu’s ability to defeat Erdogan remains in doubt. 

The art of compromise

Those who oppose Kilicdaroglu's candidacy say he lacks Erdogan’s charisma and political smarts. His Alevi faith and Kurdish roots, they say, will scare off Sunni conservatives and Turkish nationalists, who make up over half of the electorate.

Ozer Sencar, who runs the established Ankara-based polling outfit Metropoll, argues that Kilicdaroglu’s greatest shortcoming is that “he is not a strong leader.”

Sencar told Al-Monitor, “There is no real success story in his past. He lost most of the elections he ran in. He lacks courage, political savvy and has poor oratory skills."

Moreover, Sencar insisted, “He has failed to meaningfully change the CHP’s image among pious voters. They continue to see the party as hostile to Islamic values.”

The CHP mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, is widely credited with having a better shot at unseating Erdogan. “He goes to the mosque, prays but also drinks. He is the quintessential center right politician,” Sencar argued. “He beat Erdogan twice.” Sencar was referring to the AKP’s stunning mayoral upset in 2019. The AKP lost control of major cities including its crown jewel, Istanbul. A furious Erdogan ordered a redo, only to lose Istanbul again.

 “If he loses the election, Kilicdaroglu may be remembered by his allies primarily for selfishness, for having put his own ambition ahead of the country and for having blown the secular opposition’s best chance to achieve power in more than two decades,” Makovsky said.

Others fault the mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu for timidity. He has determinedly played down his faith and ethnic roots. Until recently, Kilicdaroglu held the HDP, the country’s third largest, at arms’ length, backing legislative changes that paved the way to the jailing of its top leaders, including the party’s ever-popular former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas. He did not invite them to the so-called Table of Six uniting a diverse bloc of opposition parties, including nationalist conservatives and Islamists. Until 2021, the CHP also supported the deployment of Turkish troops against Kurdish groups in neighboring Iraq and Syria.

 “Politically, Kilicdaroglu is a Turk,” argued van Bruinessen, the Dutch academic. “He is not only a Turk, but he is also ‘devlet’ as they say — a creature of the invisible forces that shape and control the Turkish state,” van Bruinessen said. He draws parallels with Haydar Saltik, a fellow Alevi and one of the brains of the generals’ last hard coup in 1980.

In truth, the spry septuagenarian is a far more complex figure than meets the eye. His family background dictated the caution that allowed Kilicdaroglu to come as far as he has. Yet there is another side that led him to assemble what is thought to be among the richest archival material on the Dersim tragedy. This includes a taped interview with Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, a former foreign minister who as a civil servant in the late 1930s was involved in the paperwork for the trial and execution by hanging of Seyit Riza, the fabled leader of the Dersim resistance.

 “They (the people) had taken refuge in caves. The army used poison gas. They killed them like rats,” he told Kilicdaroglu.

Kilicdaroglu was planning to use the material for a book but was diverted by politics.

 “This knowledge assures us that Kilicdaroglu is an honorable and decent man who remains true to his people. I will vote for him as president,” said Caner Canerik, an Alevi author in Dersim.

Many Kurds see a kindred spirit in his wife, Selvi, an earthy and refreshingly irreverent mother of three. Her solidly middle-class demeanor is in stark contrast with Erdogan’s bejeweled spouse, Emine, and her Hermes handbags. In her first interview with the media after Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader (it was with this author), the 71-year-old aired admiration for Kurdish women politicians. She said she did not learn to speak Turkish till she was four years old.

Contrary to Erdogan’s efforts to paint Kilicdaroglu as a privileged member of the Kemalist club, derisively labeling him “Bay Kemal” or “Mr. Kemal,” the CHP leader is the precise opposite, observed Yildiray Ogur, a prominent commentator for Karar. The daily newspaper is widely read by liberal Islamists who no longer support Erdogan. Ogur told Al-Monitor, “Kilicdaroglu is not an elitist, highly educated, rich white Turk. What is more, the CHP is no longer the [Turkish] state’s party supported by the military and the bureaucracy. The state’s party is now the AKP.”

The establishment mentality infusing the ruling party’s ranks is easily detected in WhatsApp chat groups in which AKP supporters hint that Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi Kurd background and ties to the HDP make him a threat to national security and someone the state cannot be entrusted to. “In the old days, the secularists would view the Islamists in this light; today it’s the other way round,” Ogur explained.

The AKP’s qualms are apparently shared by some of Kilicdaroglu’s right-wing nationalist Iyi Party partners. Its leader, Meral Aksener, has overtly lobbied against his candidacy, insisting that either Imamoglu or Yavas, more conventional figures, should be named. Kilicdaroglu refused to budge. In February, Aksener walked away from the bloc calling on the mayors to defy him. They ignored her and rallied around Kilicdaroglu instead. Worse, many in her own party rebelled, forcing her to take a step back. Some of her lieutenants, however, persist in anti-Kurdish rhetoric that could drive Kurds away.

When Kilicdaroglu took over the CHP, the party was riven with factionalism. Kemalist hard-liners sought to trip him up at every turn. Kilicdaroglu stood his ground, purging his most powerful enemies as he built bridges among the rest. “He has strategic patience, but not in a Machiavellian way,” said a former CHP lawmaker who spoke anonymously because of the restrictions imposed by his current job.

To be sure, Kilicdaroglu has softened the party’s sharper edges, proposing recently that a woman’s right to wear the Islamic headscarf be enshrined in law. He has also appealed for nationwide “hellalesme” — a Turkish concept that roughly translates to mean acknowledging past mistakes and imploring the wronged to let go of their grievances and grant their blessing.

Roj Girasun, a Kurdish pollster and researcher who is in regular contact with the CHP leader, insists that Kilicdaroglu is the architect of the party’s municipal victories, rather than the candidates themselves. “It was Kilicdaroglu who crafted the alliances with diverse opposition parties that sealed success,” Girasun told Al-Monitor. His strength lies in consensus building. “How else did Arab Alawite candidates become mayors in places like Adana and Mersin for the first time?” he asked. “He taught Sunni Kemalists to embrace religious Sunnis,” said the former CHP lawmaker. “That is no mean feat.”

It was this same skill that allowed Kilicdaroglu to establish the Table of Six. “His years of gradually modifying the CHP’s Kemalism paid off when he was able to bring Iyi and the HDP together while keeping the Ataturkist core of his party intact — demonstrating as he never had previously that he could play in the big leagues of Turkish politics,” Makovsky observed.

Many believe the turning point in Kilicdaroglu’s career was his 2017 “March for Justice” to protest the conviction of CHP lawmaker Enis Berberoglu. The former journalist was sentenced to 25 years in prison for allegedly leaking state secrets to an opposition newspaper about arms deliveries to jihadis in Syria.

Kilicdaroglu’s unifying message was on display as he carried a placard devoid of party symbols that merely read “Justice” during the 280-mile long odyssey from Ankara to Istanbul.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Kilicdaroglu called Berberoglu’s arrest “the last straw in a series of anti-democratic moves” by Erdogan.

What he didn’t say was that Berberoglu lost his parliamentary immunity and was jailed thanks to the infamous law Kilicdaroglu had backed. Could the march have been Kilicdaroglu’s first personal act of hellalesme?

Kilicdaroglu holds his cards close to his chest and confides in very few. “He doesn’t talk much but listens patiently and asks questions,” Girasun said of his encounters with the CHP leader. “When I talk to other political party leaders, they keep challenging me,” the pollster said.

Kilicdaroglu, who speaks a smattering of French but no other foreign languages (Erdogan speaks only Turkish), is accepting of advice, especially on foreign policy. In Unal Cevikoz, a seasoned former Turkish diplomat and a current adviser to Kilicdaroglu, he is in safe hands.

Alongside the Kurds, some 6 million first-time voters will have a determining impact on the outcome of the elections. “In a society that adulates power, a leader projecting such humility may not be attractive to everyone. Moral fortitude can be perceived as weakness,” Ogur said.

Still, that a poor Alevi boy from Dersim traveled this far is proof that accepted truths about Turkey can sometimes prove wrong. With a growing number of polls in his favor, envisaging Kilicdaroglu’s victory no longer sounds absurd.

By Amberin Zaman


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