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Turkey elections: Erdogan’s challenger vows to end ‘authoritarian rule’

A woman waits at an Istanbul bus stop under a banner for presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party. Turkey is set to hold elections Sunday. (Erdem Sahin/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
7 min

ANKARA, Turkey — Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Turkish opposition leader challenging President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned in an interview this week that his opponents would try to “create an environment of chaos” before the voting Sunday, alluding to fears that political tensions could threaten the country’s most consequential election in decades.

“They are going to incite the public. They are going to provoke them,” Kilicdaroglu, 74, said of Erdogan and his political allies in an interview Monday in his office in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, referring to an incident last weekend in which a mob threw rocks at a bus belonging to a member of Kilicdaroglu’s party in the eastern city of Erzurum.

“The people are mainly on the side of change,” said Kilicdaroglu, adding that he did not expect Turks to be goaded into violence. “Whatever difficulties they create, so be it. Voters will be persistent.”

Opinion polls have shown a tight race between Kilicdaroglu (KUH-litch-DAR-oh-loo), a former government bureaucrat who leads Turkey’s largest opposition party, and Erdogan, 69, who has ruled Turkey since 2003. Kilicdaroglu’s campaign messages have leaned heavily on optimism and hope — an effort to separate himself from Erdogan’s attacking rhetoric and to stir a public struggling with crushing economic burdens and the trauma of earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people.

Erdogan’s defeat would have profound consequences at home, where his leadership has been defined by personalized one-man rule, and for Turkey abroad, where the NATO member’s ties with the United States, and governments from Europe to the Middle East, have been marked by frequent episodes of crisis. Turks voting Sunday will also elect members of parliament.

Kilicdaroglu said he would prioritize repairing Turkey’s economy and strengthening democracy while ending “authoritarian rule.” In foreign policy, his administration would ease what he said was the country’s “isolation” around the world and restore power to a diplomatic corps sidelined under Erdogan. Analysts say Kilicdaroglu is likely to preserve Turkey’s ties to Russia, an important commercial partner, though he has criticized Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

Relations with the United States would be more “balanced” under his administration, he said, mentioning Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program after Erdogan’s decision to buy an air defense system from Russia. Kilicdaroglu did not say how that dispute would be resolved. Of the Russian air defense system, the S-400, he said, “Turkey currently owns the most expensive scraps in the world.”

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Kilicdaroglu is an unlikely challenger, possessing none of Erdogan’s charisma and, before the campaign, little of the president’s popularity, including among opposition supporters, who appeared to favor others from Kilicdaroglu’s party as presidential candidates. His biography notes that, after stints in the Finance Ministry and Turkey’s social security agency, Kilicdaroglu was chosen by a magazine as its 1994 “Bureaucrat of the Year.”

As the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the centrist party begun by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey — Kilicdaroglu was best known for losing multiple elections to Erdogan. And he was accused by some of timidity as the president centralized power after a failed coup attempt in 2016 and pursued a crackdown on perceived enemies and dissidents.

That year, Kilicdaroglu supported a government measure to lift the immunity of members of parliament, clearing the way for the arrests of lawmakers from a popular pro-Kurdish opposition party.

Perceptions of Kilicdaroglu started to change in 2017 when the CHP held a “justice march” to protest the arrest of one of its lawmakers, as government repression intensified. The march marked a “turning point, because it was the moment that Kilicdaroglu began to show this transformed CHP to the society,” said Seren Selvin Korkmaz, who studies Turkey’s opposition and is the founder and executive director of the IstanPol Institute.

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Over the past decade, as Erdogan strengthened his grip on Turkey’s institutions — including by changing the government from a parliamentary to a presidential system — the CHP was forced to reckon with the fact that it was no longer the “state” party, as it had been historically, and needed to focus on its ties with society, she said.

Under Kilicdaroglu, the CHP has made efforts to reach out to Turkey’s Kurdish minority as well as conservative Muslim voters who formed the core of Erdogan’s constituency.

Kilicdaroglu’s perceived liabilities — his staid demeanor, his bureaucratic experience — have become strengths in this election campaign, as he cobbled together a coalition of parties with disparate views to challenge Erdogan. “He is master of building alliances, and co-opting opponents,” Korkmaz said. That has not prevented long-standing differences between coalition partners from bursting into public view, including when Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy was announced in March.

Kilicdaroglu, who says he grew up in a “poor home” in eastern Turkey and sometimes worked in watermelon fields in the summers, has tried to highlight his working-class values by recording campaign videos in what appears to be his modest kitchen — another attempt to distinguish himself from Erdogan, whose presidential palace in Ankara, visible from the CHP’s headquarters, has more than a thousand rooms.

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In one of the videos, Kilicdaroglu talks about his upbringing as a member of Turkey’s persecuted Alevi religious minority — addressing in public an issue that some of his supporters privately fretted could make him unelectable in a Sunni Muslim-majority country. The video racked up tens of millions of views.

Kilicdaroglu has also increasingly shied away from the negative campaign rhetoric about Erdogan that he used in the past, Korkmaz said. Erdogan “is not in the center of his campaign.” A similar electoral theme, referred to as “radical love,” paid dividends for the CHP in 2019, when the party’s candidates for mayor pulled off upset wins in Istanbul and Ankara.

The party’s positive messages — support for human rights, freedoms and democracy — reach their limit on the topic of immigrants and asylum seekers. Kilicdaroglu has vowed to send back within two years millions of refugees hosted by Turkey, including about 4 million Syrians who fled their country’s civil war, a policy he has repeatedly insisted is not “racist.”

Pressed on why Syrians in Turkey represented a problem, Kilicdaroglu noted that refugees live in dire conditions, that many work for less than minimum wage and that none are eligible for social security. “This disturbs us,” he said. “What is going to happen to these people tomorrow when they age?” Erdogan, who welcomed Syrian refugees for years before closing the borders, has also vowed to send hundreds of thousands back to their country.

Some of Kilicdaroglu’s other policies hew to bedrock nationalist positions, including criticism of U.S. support for a Kurdish-led militia in Syria affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “We know that the terror organization is receiving weapons from the West. We also know that the terrorist organization is financed by the West,” he said.

But he added that Turkey must be part of what he called “Western civilization,” a term he said included non-Western democracies that respect human rights and have a balance of powers.

As he has during his campaign, Kilicdaroglu reserved most of his focus in the interview for the changes he would bring to Turkey, where he has pledged to restore a parliamentary system. People should not be “prosecuted or imprisoned for their thoughts,” he said, adding that judges who had refused to release political prisoners, in line with decisions by the country’s highest court or the European Court of Human Rights, needed to be “removed.”

“They are receiving their orders from the palace,” he said.

In response to a recent attack line from Erdogan and his allies, painting the opposition as pro-LGBTQ to shore up support from conservatives, Kilicdaroglu said: “We have an understanding that respects human rights. The private lives of individuals, their identities, and their beliefs is not a subject for politics.” He suggested that Pride parades, banned under Erdogan, would be allowed again.

“Turkey is a country of prohibitions,” he said. “When we are in power, Turkey will be a country of freedom.”