It took Kemal Kilicdaroglu more than a decade and some bitter defeats to secure the confidence of the Turkish opposition and become its torchbearer in May’s crucial parliamentary and presidential polls.
For better or for worse, the 74-year-old former official’s bookish manners stood in stark contrast to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brash and bombastic style.
But Kilicdaroglu, an ethnic Alevi leader of the Republic People’s Party (CHP) since 2010, has worked hard to sharpen his image while reshaping his party’s rigid line.
Under his auspices, the left-wing CHP — founded by the secular founder of the predominantly Muslim country, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — has embraced minority groups it once sidelined, including the Kurds.
At the risk of outraging the party’s rank and file, Kilicdaroglu has also forged alliances with right-wing parties and championed the right of socially conservative women to remain veiled at school and work.
A former close colleague, Riza Celikkol, described Kilicdaroglu as “very hard-working and disciplined”, while others called him “Gandhi of Turkey” for his gentle ways.
– ‘March for Justice’ –
Kilicdaroglu, who prefers to be known as “the silent force,” took years to sharpen his tone and make a meaningful national impact.
One of his defining moments came in 2017, when he launched a “march for justice” from Ankara to Istanbul to protest the imprisonment of a CHP MP.
At the time, few dared stand up to Erdogan, who has been unleashing purges that have seen tens of thousands imprisoned or stripped of their government jobs after a failed coup in 2016.
The march allowed Kilicdaroglu, who studied finance and headed Turkey’s social security system before unsuccessfully becoming mayor of Istanbul in 2009, to emerge as a leader unafraid to confront Erdogan.
Two years later, Kilicdaroglu’s CHP came to power in Turkey’s most esteemed cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, ending 25 years of rule by Erdogan and his party.
Kilicdaroglu’s tone hardened and confidence grew thanks to these unexpected victories, which cracked Erdogan’s aura of political invincibility.
“This is my fight for your rights,” Kilicdaroglu proclaimed from the darkness of his apartment last year after refusing to pay the bills in solidarity with others suffering from Turkey’s long-standing economic crisis.
– ‘Mr. Kemal’ –
Kilicdaroglu has since developed a knack for showing up unannounced at government buildings, the media in tow, demanding to speak to ministers about various social grievances.
He has accused the Bureau of Statistics of pulling out the books to hide the true magnitude of Turkey’s runaway inflation, and accused business executives of enriching themselves through big state contracts.
Kilicdaroglu also came out swinging after a massive earthquake that killed more than 45,000 in Turkey and 5,000 in Syria last month, accusing the government of lax construction standards and corruption.
Despite these apparent successes, even his own backers wonder if Kilicdaroglu possesses the kind of charisma necessary to take on Erdogan – a tireless campaigner who comes to life on stage.
Born in the historically rebellious eastern Tunceli province, where there is a Kurdish and Alevi majority, Kilicdaroglu could struggle to win over conservative Sunni voters, who are at the core of Erdogan’s support.
Alevis do not respect certain rituals of Islam and have faced discrimination and even massacres in the predominantly Sunni country.
If elected, Kilicdaroglu would be the first Alevi to head the Turkish state.
Somewhat dismissively, Erdogan refers to Kilicdaroglu as “Bay Kemal,” or Mr. Kemal, a colloquial form of address rarely used in adult conversations.
Married with three adult children and now a grandfather, Kilicdaroglu once described the early years of his life with his wife Selvi as “humble”.
“We didn’t have a fridge, washing machine or dishwasher,” he once recalled.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is being published from a syndicated feed.)
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