Turkey Elections: Meet Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan's challenger

Turkish voters go to the polls on May 14 and could well reject long-time President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Who else is competing for the top job?

Turkey elections: Who's running against Erdogan?
Turkey elections: Who's running against Erdogan?


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the beating heart of politics in Turkey today. The 69-year-old was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 and then rose to the top positions in the country. He founded the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and led it to victory a year later.

From 2003 to 2014, he served as prime minister, after which he became president after stepping down as party leader. He promptly set about expanding the power of the presidency and in 2017, he used a referendum to enshrine a series of amendments that gave the office more control in the constitution.

Erdogan's control over Turkish politics, the administration and judiciary is equal to no other Turkish leader of the past 100 years. In 2012, he even described the separation of powers as an "obstacle."

However, the incumbent president is now under considerable pressure because of the country's ongoing economic crisis, and increasing restrictions on human rights and the rule of law in recent years. His AKP party is currently part of an alliance with the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Kemal Kilicdaroglu

Although Kemal Kilicdaroglu was never considered the opposition's natural leader, he has managed to prevail and will compete in May's presidential election representing a six-party opposition alliance.

The 74-year old is regarded as an anti-corruption bureaucrat, and one of his nicknames is "Democratic Uncle." He has been chairman of the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) since 2007.

Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance are promising to transform Turkey and turn it back into a "strong parliamentary system." They want to undo as many of Erdogan's constitutional changes, which increased his power, as possible.

The alliance wants to restore parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and media freedom, and ensure the separation of powers are respected again. Kilicdaroglu recently told DW that, if elected to office, he would abolish the article which makes it a criminal offense to insult the president — an article that has enabled Erdogan to take numerous people to court.

Kilicdaroglu is also backed by Istanbul's popular mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and his equally popular Ankara counterpart Mansur Yavas. Should Kilicdaroglu win the election, Imamoglu and Yavas will be named deputy presidents.

Many influential Kurdish politicians expect Turkey's Kurdish voters — who make up between 15 and 20% of the electorate — to support Kilicdaroglu.

Muharrem Ince

Two other politicians are running for the presidency, though neither are especially popular. It was considered certain that the Turkish opposition would field a joint candidate against Erdogan to pool its votes against him and increase their chances of winning the election. Two opposition politicians nevertheless decided to run on their own. Their candidacies have therefore attracted heavy criticism.

One of these politicians is 58-year-old Muharrem Ince, who ran for the presidency in 2018 for the CHP. He lost against Erdogan, despite winning 30% of the vote.

He then resigned from the CHP and founded his own party, the "Homeland Party" (Memleket Partisi). He accuses the CHP of not having supported him enough five years ago, when he ran for office. Many CHP supporters are now calling on Ince not to run. But negotiations between Ince and Kilicdaroglu could not persuade Ince to withdraw his candidacy.

Ince's election promises include strengthening the rule of law and press freedom, which he expects will also strengthen the Turkish economy and its tourist sector.

Sinan Ogan

The final candidate is Sinan Ogan, who probably has the slimmest chance of winning the presidential race. He is supported by an alliance of small, ultranationalist parties.

In 2011, he entered parliament with the MHP, when it was still in opposition. He was expelled from the party in 2015, though rejoined after a court case. In 2017, Ogan was expelled yet again. The MHP said his behavior had "seriously damaged the unity of the party" and accused him of "severe indiscipline toward the party chairman." Although he was considered a possible candidate for the MHP party leadership at the time, today, he has no realistic chance of winning the presidency.

As a staunch nationalist, his foreign policy stance is clear: He promises to stop celebrating Greece's Independence Day and stresses that Turkey must pay special attention to the Turkic states, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Every vote counts

Just a few votes can make all the difference in elections, as Turks know well. In 1994, Erdogan was one of several candidates running for Istanbul mayor. While the four candidates of the non-Islamist parties won 22, 20, 15 and 12% of the vote, respectively, Erdogan received 25%, thereby narrowly clinching victory. This year, there is yet again fear among the Turkish opposition that its own disunity could allow Erdogan to win the election.

This article was translated from German.

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