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Who is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a leading challenger to Erdogan in Turkey's election?

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People's Party and presidential candidate of the a broad opposition alliance, greets supporters at a rally while campaigning for the presidential election on April 27 in Tekirdag, Turkey.
Burak Kara
/
Getty Images
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People's Party and presidential candidate of the a broad opposition alliance, greets supporters at a rally while campaigning for the presidential election on April 27 in Tekirdag, Turkey.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — There's a big election coming up in Turkey on May 14, one that could shape the trajectory of this NATO ally for years to come.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led the country for 20 years, is asking voters to grant him another five years in office.

Three challengers are seeking to end his long tenure, but most observers agree the race will boil down to Erdogan vs. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a candidate backed by six opposition parties.

The election comes as Turkey is grappling with sky-high inflation and grieving and rebuilding from February's deadly earthquakes. Internationally, the country's trying to hold together a Ukraine grain export deal to help maintain global food supplies during Russia's invasion. But the Turkish government has complicated efforts to expand NATO over issues with Kurdish militants from Turkey taking refuge in Europe.

Erdogan is still popular, and has consolidated power under his presidency, but many Turks want a change. Human rights advocates have documented widespread arrests and purges of civil servants, journalists, activists, academics and others.

Here is a look at the man expected to be the incumbent's top challenger, Kilicdaroglu, and what sets him apart.

A contrast to Erdogan

Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo), 74, is a low-key former accountant known to followers as a clean politician who champions secular values. He leads Turkey's main secular opposition party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP.

In the 1990s, he worked in the Finance Ministry and later directed the social security institution — his resume boasts he was once named "Bureaucrat of the Year" — before becoming a member of parliament in 2002.

Erdogan, 69, is a confident orator and proudly religious Muslim whose Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has roots in political Islam.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Ankara, on April 30.
Adem Altan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters during an election campaign rally in Ankara, on April 30.

The contrasts between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan are clear, says analyst Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Istanbul's Kadir Has University.

"Mr. Kilicdaroglu, who is not known for his charismatic or exciting personality but is a dogged worker, if you will, promises to Turkey a calmer future and promises to eradicate corruption and also to seek accountability," Ozel says.

Perceptions of corruption in Turkey have increased over the past decade and are worse than the global average, according to studies by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

For the opposition candidate to make good on those pledges, Ozel adds, "I suppose this also implies that he will bring some people to justice, if the evidence is very strong about embezzlement and other corrupt activities."

On international issues, analysts say the U.S. and European countries would likely find Kilicdaroglu an easier partner to deal with, but shouldn't expect immediate or dramatic changes to Ankara's foreign policy positions.

He has sometimes turned up the rhetoric

The measured Kilicdaroglu has occasionally fired up his political attacks on Erdogan. In an address last fall, he dared Erdogan to debate him, and made a reference to Kasimpasa — a tough Istanbul neighborhood where Erdogan grew up.

"I say if you are a bully from Kasimpasa, you come and face me," he said. "But no, he wouldn't come, he wouldn't have the courage. I know this well."

Turkey used to have televised presidential candidate debates, but not since Erdogan took office.

Erdogan has responded to Kilicdaroglu's campaign by declaring him unfit to lead the country. At a campaign event in the city of Rize, along Turkey's Black Sea coast, the current leader said, "Mr. Kemal, you can't even lead a sheep, you can't."

Kilicdaroglu in turn, during an April rally in Canakkale, said Erdogan can no longer govern Turkey.

In the past, Kilicdaroglu has been criticized for his party's failure to defeat Erdogan and the ruling AKP. But that all changed in 2019 when opposition candidates decisively won the mayoral races in both Istanbul and Ankara.

It's the strongest opposition push in years

In this aerial photo, thousands of supporters wave flags and chant slogans while waiting for the arrival of Republican People's Party presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a campaign rally on April 30 in Izmir, Turkey. The Kilicdaroglu-led Nation Alliance is representing six opposition parties in the May 14 election against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 20-year rule.
Burak Kara / Getty Images
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Getty Images
In this aerial photo, thousands of supporters wave flags and chant slogans while waiting for the arrival of Republican People's Party presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu during a campaign rally on April 30 in Izmir, Turkey. The Kilicdaroglu-led Nation Alliance is representing six opposition parties in the May 14 election against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 20-year rule.

Kilicdaroglu not only represents his CHP party — he's the candidate of a coalition of half a dozen parties known as the Table of Six or the Nation Alliance. The coalition includes parties from the left, center and right wings of Turkish politics, and disagrees on many issues. But it has found common ground on one thing — their desire to replace Erdogan as president.

That this coalition came together and put forward a single candidacy in Kilicdaroglu is a remarkable event in Turkish political history, according to Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.

"One major failure why the opposition was unable to unseat Erdogan in the past related to its failure to act as a united opposition," he says. "This time around, the opposition has been able set up a large coalition that includes six political parties."

Kilicdaroglu also has the backing of the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, who have appeared at his campaign rallies and stumped for him at their own events.

He wants to make Turkey parliamentary again

Analysts say voters are keenly following the campaign, and turnout could be unusually strong, even by Turkey's normally high standards.

Istanbul resident Meral Cildir, 64, sits on the board of the Turkish Human Rights Association. She's excited by Kilicdaroglu's pledge to restore Turkey's former parliamentary form of government, which Erdogan successfully converted into a strong presidency in a 2017 referendum.

"Surely the change back to a parliamentary system will be the first step towards restoring our democracy," she says, "otherwise it won't be any different from the government we've got now."

She hopes Kilicdaroglu can restore government checks and balances, and promote respect for human rights.

She points to the more than 100,000 civil servants, academics, journalists and others who lost their jobs or were imprisoned following a failed coup attempt in 2016, saying she hopes Kilicdaroglu will try to repair some of that damage should he win.

Twenty-four-year-old Ibrahim Iper says the current state of the country has him and his friends eager for a new leader.

"We want to change, because we are young. Young people want to change this position we're in — the economical, the political, we don't like it," he says.

Iper says if Kilicdaroglu does win, he'll have four huge tasks ahead of him: to restore Turkey's democracy, ensure the independence of the judiciary, get the economy back on track and shore up Turkey's education sector.

Accurate polling can be hard to find in Turkey. Some recent polls see Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu in a tight race with neither winning more than 50%, which would lead to a second round between the two top candidates on May 28.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.