NEWSMAKER-Turkey’s cheerful Kilicdaroglu says elections will bring a new spring

NEWSMAKER-Turkey's cheerful Kilicdaroglu says elections will bring a new spring



Kilicdaroglu is confident of beating Erdogan in Sunday’s race


He feels that a new spring is coming


Opinion polls show that Kilicdaroglu is in charge


Turkey could see a new path after two decades under Erdogan

By Ece Toksabay and Huseyin Hayatsever

ANKARA, May 14 (Reuters) – He may not be as charismatic as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, but mild-mannered Kemal Kilicdaroglu is optimistic about his chances of defeating Erdogan in Sunday’s elections, promising a new spring after two decades of tumultuous control of his rival.

Opposition leader Kilicdaroglu, long in the shadow of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP), is thriving on the campaign trail with polls showing he has a slight lead.

“I ask everyone to keep calm and remember that we are bringing spring to this country,” he told Reuters in an interview at his office in Ankara, two days before what many see as the most consistent voice of modern Turkey.

“Never be in a pessimistic mood,” he said in a message to supporters. “Remember that we will replace authoritarian rule with the votes we cast,” he added.

He has promised to put Turkey, Europe’s second largest country, on a new path and reverse much of the legacy of the man who has taken tight control of most of its institutions.

Kilicdaroglu’s top priority, however, is a return to orthodox economic policies and the parliamentary system of governance, and independence for a judiciary, critics say, which Erdogan has used to quell dissent.

“We need to appoint someone trusted by financial circles as head of the central bank. This is the first thing foreign investors will see. Moreover, we will guarantee the independence of the central bank,” he said in the interview.

“We are forming Champions League teams in every department. From politics to economics, from education to culture. We will rule the country with the most competent teams,” he said.


His plan aims to cool inflation that reached 85% last year and solve a cost-of-living crisis that has left many Turks impoverished.

An alliance of six opposition parties named the earnest and sometimes feisty former official as a candidate to run against Erdogan in Sunday’s elections.

Opinion polls showed Kilicdaroglu, 74, leading and possibly winning in a second round of voting, following an inclusive campaign that promised solutions to a cost-of-living crisis that has eroded Erdogan’s popularity in recent years.

“I know people are struggling to make ends meet. I know the cost of living and the hopelessness of young people,” Kilicdaroglu told a rally this month. “It’s time for change. A new mind and understanding is needed.”

Critics say Kilicdaroglu — who is scorned by Erdogan after suffering repeated electoral defeats as chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — lacks his opponent’s bombastic style and dominant power to steer his alliance once elected.

He “portrays a totally opposite image of Erdogan, who is a polarizing figure and fighter consolidating his voter base,” said Birol Baskan, a Turkey-based author and political analyst.

“Kilicdaroglu is much more like a statesman, trying to unite and reach out to those who don’t vote for them… That’s his magic, and very hard to do in Turkey,” he said. “I’m not sure he’s going to win, but he, Kilicdaroglu, is the right character at the right time.”

If he wins, Kilicdaroglu will face challenges in keeping an opposition alliance of nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals united. His selection as a candidate came after a 72-hour dispute in which the leader of the second largest party, IYI’s Meral Aksener, briefly walked away.

His biggest task would be to erase the footprints Erdogan and his party have left on all organs of state, from the military to the judiciary and the media, cramming them with loyalists and liberals and sidelining critics.

Kilicdaroglu said that a fundamental problem of Turkey’s foreign policy during the tenure of Erdogan’s AKP was the exclusion of the foreign ministry from the policy-making process.


“We would pursue a peace-oriented foreign policy that prioritizes the national interest of Turkey. Our priority is our national interests and act in accordance with the modern world,” Kilicdaroglu added.

Analysts say Erdogan, the country’s longest-serving leader, is closer than ever to defeat despite the government’s record spending on social aid ahead of the vote.

The opposition has stressed that Erdogan’s drive to cut interest rates triggered the inflationary crisis that devastated household budgets. The government says the policy has boosted exports and investment as part of a program that encourages lira ownership.

Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu worked in the Ministry of Finance and then served as chairman of the Turkish Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s. In speeches, Erdogan regularly belittles his performance in that role.

A former economist, he became a member of parliament in 2002 when Erdogan’s AKP first came to power. He represented the centre-left CHP, a party founded by modern Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which has struggled to reach beyond its secular constituency to conservatives.

However, he has spoken in recent years about 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 files that led to high-profile layoffs. A year after losing a mayoral candidate in Istanbul, he was unopposed as party leader in 2010.

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

Nicknamed “Gandhi Kemal” by the Turkish media because his petite, bespectacled appearance bears a resemblance to India’s independence hero, he captured the public imagination in 2017 when he launched a 450km “March for Justice” from Ankara to Istanbul over arrest from a CHP delegate. (Additional reporting by Burcu Karakas, Daren Butler, and Jonathan Spicer; editing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean)