Leader of Turkey’s secular and center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kilicdaroglu (pronounced Ke-lich-dar-ou-loo) is widely seen as everything Erdogan is not. He was finally nominated after three days of political bickering among the six-party alliance – just three months before the vote.
His much-awaited selection also came after strong criticism of the opposition bloc for their delay in choosing their frontrunner, which analysts said may have bolstered Erdogan’s chances.
Perhaps the most important election in Turkey’s modern history, the vote is expected to take place on May 14.
It comes just months after a deadly February 6 earthquake rocked the country’s southeast, killing more than 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria. It also falls amid soaring inflation and a currency crisis that last year saw nearly 30% slashed off the lira’s value against the dollar.
Erdogan, who turned 69 last month, is hoping to extend his power well into a third decade. And while the AK Party leader is today facing the fiercest opposition yet to his rule, polls suggest a very tight race between him and the CHP candidate even after last month’s earthquake caused widespread disgruntlement in his strongholds.
But who is the slightly older, bespectacled contender hoping to break Erdogan’s 20-year grip on power?
A follower of Ataturk
A lawmaker representing the CHP since 2002 – the same year that saw Erdogan’s AK Party rise to power – Kilicdaroglu, 74, climbed up the political ladder to become his party’s seventh chairman in 2010.
Born in the eastern, Kurdish-majority province of Tunceli, the party leader ran in Turkey’s 2011 general election but lost, coming second to Erdogan and his AK Party.
Kilicdaroglu represents the party formed 100 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey and a die-hard secularist. He stands in stark contrast to Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party and its conservative base.
Despite his secular leanings, however, the opposition candidate and his alliance have vowed to represent all factions of Turkish society, which analysts say was demonstrated in his diverse coalition.
The opposition bloc’s roadmap has been clear in its aim to reverse Erdogan’s presidential system, moving towards a more inclusive parliamentary system where the president’s role holds less power.
“There will no longer be a centralization of power at the hands of the president,” said Mehmet Karli, coordinator of the Program on Contemporary Turkey at the European Studies Centre at Oxford University.
“The presidency will become a symbolic office and Turkey will revert back to the parliamentary democracy that it was since 1921,” Karli, who is also a long-term adviser to Kilicdaroglu, told CNN.
Kilicdaroglu stands for a more “pluralist Turkish identity,” said Karli, where freedoms and liberties are cherished.
Erdogan’s polar opposite
Sometimes referred to as “Ghandhi Kemal” for both his physical resemblance to India’s Mahatma Ghandhi as well as his humble decorum, Kilicdaroglu is seen as Erdogan’s polar opposite, analysts say.
“Kemal Kilicdaroglu is everything President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not,” Gonul Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Turkey program in Washington, DC, told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Tuesday. “Erdogan is a rightwing, populist firebrand who has dismantled the country’s institutions to establish his one-man rule.”
“He has little regard for expertise or liberal democratic values,” she said, adding that while Kilicdaroglu is not as charismatic, “he wants to rebuild the country’s institutions, diffuse power and rule with consultations and compromise.”
While both Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan hail from humble socio-economic backgrounds, “they evolved to be completely different creatures,” says Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul.
Symbolically, “Erdogan is the shopkeeper, Kilicdaroglu is the bureaucrat,” said Somer, referring to Erdogan’s businessman-like approach, as opposed to that of Kilicdaroglu, who Somer says is more committed to procedure.
“Kilicdaroglu will try to fight corruption and also bring past corruptions to justice,” he said.
An ‘institutional’ foreign policy
Kilicdaroglu is expected to have a softer and more predictable approach toward the West, analysts say, as he will not be acting unilaterally but through institutions.
“Kilicdaroglu is a strong believer that Turkey belongs in the West,” said Karli, his adviser.
If the West wants a relationship with Turkey that is based on “shared values,” says Somer, then they are very likely to experience a much better partnership under Kilicdaroglu, whose values, he said, are much closer to those of the West and the European Union.
Conflicts with foreign powers are still bound to take place, he continued, as Turkey has its own national interests which Kilicdaroglu and the opposition are also keen to preserve.
“But it will defend these interests with a different discourse and with a different approach,” Somer said, adding that Kilicdaroglu’s foreign policy is likely to rely on Western alliances.
Erdogan’s foreign policy has often been described as “combative” and “personal,” which the opposition may change to become more institutional, predictable and based on soft power, Somer said.
Turkey’s friendship with Russia may also witness change, experts say. A close friend of Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been clear to support his Turkish counterpart.
Karli says that Kilicdaroglu will call out Russia for its violation of international law, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while maintaining a balancing role between Moscow and Turkey’s Western allies.
In the Middle East, where Erdogan has for months been pledging a new incursion into northern Syria amid his fight with Kurdish militants, Kilicdaroglu’s approach is expected to be much less interventionist, experts say.
Kilicdaroglu is a follower of Ataturk’s maxim, says Karli, that “unless a nation’s life faces peril, war is murder.”
What are his chances of winning?
This year’s election presents an unprecedented scenario where one candidate, Erdogan, is running against a coalition of parties that haven’t traditionally seen eye-to-eye on ideology, analysts say.
Somer, of Koc University, sees Kilicdaroglu’s approach to running in a coalition as a potential strength.
Kilicdaroglu and the two vice presidents he has named are the three most popular leaders in the country, said Tol. “If they run as a team, this will certainly broaden the appeal of the opposition coalition,” she said.
The next three months will define Turkey’s future. And while many critics expected the earthquake to impact Erdogan’s reelection chances, polls indicate that the government is not likely to lose as many votes as the opposition anticipated, Ozer Sencar, chairman of MetroPOLL, a Turkish polling firm, told CNN.
“After the earthquake, Erdogan’s popularity decreased by only 1 point, while Kilicdaroglu’s popularity decreased by 5 points,” he said.
“All these data show that the losses of the government and Erdogan due to the earthquake are at a level that can be compensated.”
The race is going to be a tight one, said Somer.
“It will be a referendum between democracy and autocracy, not an election between two candidates,” he said. “It will be an epic story.”