While the state and all people have been trying to heal the wounds of the destruction caused by the great earthquakes in Türkiye (Turkey), conscious people, who think that this unfortunate situation that the country fell into could only be solved by making some changes in the state mechanism and political system, have started to attach more importance to politics in this process. In that sense, the presidential and parliamentary elections Türkiye will hold on May 14, 2023 will determine the future of the country in its 100th year anniversary.
In this article, I will present you the opposition’s presidential candidate and pro-secular CHP (Republican People’s Party) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and discuss his political style and personality from the perspective of Political Science.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu: An Anatolian Child Rising to the Top
Now, let us review the life story of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is now the opposition’s official presidential candidate. Before moving on to Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s political messages and personality, let us first take a closer look at his biography.
Kemal Karabulut, who was born on December 17, 1948 in the Nazimiye district of Tunceli as the fourth child of the land registry officer Kamer Bey and the housewife Yemuş Hanım, took the name Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu with his surname change in 1950, when his family took the surname “Kılıçdaroğlu”, which refers to the identity of his great-grandfathers. Being a successful student, Kılıçdaroğlu attended the Ankara Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences after graduating from Elazığ Commerce High School as the most successful student. Kılıçdaroğlu, who attracted attention with his hard work and high grades throughout his school life, took part in the Science Board of the Federation of Social Democracy Associations as a 1968 generation left-wing university student, but did not show a very prominent and activist tendency. This can also be considered as an indication of Kılıçdaroğlu’s cautious and democratic personality. During these years, the young Kılıçdaroğlu was the President of the Association for Social and Cultural Actions and participated in many political actions. However, Kılıçdaroğlu, who had a humanist political line starting from his youth, never participated in physical political conflicts and always adopted democratic methods of struggle. During this period, Kılıçdaroğlu also became classmates with the nationalist activist Devlet Bahçeli, who would become the chairman of the MHP in the following years, and did not have any problems with him.
Kılıçdaroğlu graduated from school in 1971 and started his career in the Ministry of Finance by passing the account specialist exam. Kılıçdaroğlu, who later became an accountant, stayed in France for a year and learned French at an intermediate level during this period. Kılıçdaroğlu, who continued his accounting expertise until 1983, was appointed to the General Directorate of Revenues in the same year. Here, he first served as the Head of the Department, and later served as the Deputy General Manager of the same institution. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was appointed to Bağ-Kur in 1991. Kılıçdaroğlu, who served as the General Manager here, moved to the General Directorate of the Social Insurance Institution (SSK) in 1992. Kılıçdaroğlu later served as the Deputy Undersecretary at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security for a short time, was selected as the “Bureaucrat of the Year” by the Economic Trend magazine in 1994, thanks to his outstanding performance.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who held many important positions for the Turkish State in his professional life and left a clean record behind him, voluntarily resigned from the Social Insurance Institution (SSK) in January 1999, in the hope of entering politics from the DSP (Democratic Left Party), a social democratic party led by Bülent Ecevit, a charismatic left-wing leader whom he had admired since his youth. However, Kılıçdaroğlu had to postpone his entry into politics when Ecevit did not nominate him at that time. Thus, instead of politics, for a while, he presided over the Informal Economy Specialization Commission during the studies of the 8th Five-Year Development Plan, and also lectured at Hacettepe University in Ankara for a while. In this process, Kılıçdaroğlu also served as the President of the Citizens’ Tax Protection Association. Kılıçdaroğlu, who later served as a member of the Board of Directors of Türkiye İş Bankası, was also invited to the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Science Culture Platform with the then-party chair Deniz Baykal’s suggestion during these years and carried out some studies there. Kılıçdaroğlu entered the parliament for the first time as CHP Istanbul deputy in the general elections of 3 November 2002 and was reelected Istanbul deputy in the 22 July 2007 elections.
While Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was not widely known in the Turkish public until 2007, in this year, he started to draw attention with his labor-friendly statements and concrete criticisms of the government’s policies in journalist Tuncay Mollaveisoğlu’s “Poverty and Corruption” program on Kanaltürk TV, then-owned by famous journalist Tuncay Özkan, and became a hope especially for leftists. While there was great anxiety and despair on the left after the great success of the AK Parti in the 22 July 2007 elections, Kılıçdaroğlu gained public support with his documented opposition in the debates he had with AK Parti Deputy Chairman Şaban Dişli and Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat and forced these names to resign from their positions as Vice Presidents. Kılıçdaroğlu, who became known as a “dualist” and “gladiator” with his outstanding performance in these debates, also put the popular Ankara Metropolitan Mayor Melih Gökçek in a difficult situation before the 29 March 2009 local elections in a televised debate.
Kılıçdaroğlu, who was selected as the Istanbul Mayor candidate by the CHP chairman Deniz Baykal at that time due to his outstanding performance, reached wide audiences and became well-known throughout the country during his mayoral campaign, which he carried out together with the CHP Istanbul Provincial President Gürsel Tekin. Kılıçdaroğlu, who reinforced his popular image and conveyed his messages to large masses, especially with his walking on muddy roads in shantytowns with hole shoes and renting a house in a middle-class neighborhood, was also appreciated by the public for his modest personality and honesty. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu was not elected Istanbul Mayor during this period, he aroused great love and respect in the society and in the media by his ability to establish a warm dialogue with people from many different segments of the society and to respond in a civilized manner to the taunts of his interlocutors without getting angry. During the election campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu was nicknamed “Gandhi Kemal”, inspired by the legendary leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi on the basis of his physical resemblance to him. In the same period, the nickname of “Second Ecevit” was also used for Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu received 2,566,000 votes as the candidate of CHP in Istanbul in the 29 March 2009 local elections (the party increased its votes by 25 percent compared to the previous elections and brought it to 37 percent in the elections), and despite not winning the election, according to many, achieved great success. If it is taken into account that the CHP received 2,323,000 votes in the same elections in the Istanbul Provincial General Assembly, with his personal charisma and leadership, he managed to get the votes of 243,000 people who did not vote for the party. In addition, the song “Kılıçdaroğlu”, prepared by the folk music artist Onur Akın for the election campaign, created a great sensation and helped Kılıçdaroğlu’s name to be heard everywhere, even in the most remote villages. This success did not remain only within the borders of Istanbul; the votes of AK Parti Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, who was worn out by Kılıçdaroğlu before the election, decreased from 55 percent to 38 percent in this election.
Although it is claimed that his image has eroded after the election defeat, Kılıçdaroğlu, who continued to frequently appear in television programs as the Deputy Chairman of the CHP Group, visited nearly 50 cities in a 1,5 year period and held conferences and public sessions. In the same period, Kılıçdaroğlu, who invited the sharp-tongued name of the AK Parti, Bülent Arınç, to a duel in an open session, received a response from him as “not my equal”. Kılıçdaroğlu announced his candidacy for the Chairman of the CHP on May 6, 2010, after the conspiracy against CHP leader Deniz Baykal following a sex tape scandal due to intense pressure from the media and the public. So, he was elected at the 33rd Ordinary CHP Congress on 22 May 2010 the 7th Chairman of the party after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, İsmet İnönü, Bülent Ecevit, Deniz Baykal, Hikmet Çetin, and Altan Öymen. In his speech at the congress, Kılıçdaroğlu first promised to lower down the election threshold of 10 percent, which prevents the true manifestation of the national will. In addition, he stated that the intra-party democracy will be ensured by changing the law on political parties. He also stated that investments will be encouraged in the Southeastern Anatolian Region, where the population of Kurdish origin is densely populated, and the economic causes of terrorism will be eliminated. He also said that the state will give unemployment benefits to all unemployed families with the family insurance system, and most importantly, ethnic and sectarian-based identity politics would not be followed. Moreover, he promised to lift the parliamentary immunity and to take concrete steps to reduce the unemployment in the country. Not a specialist in foreign policy at those years, Kılıçdaroğlu only criticized the European Union’s double standard practices towards Türkiye. Kılıçdaroğlu, who received positive points in the public opinion with his address “Recep Bey” to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made criticisms about the glorious life behind the Prime Minister’s victim image and announced his modest assets published on his personal website. Kılıçdaroğlu, who has created great excitement among the youth, women, and the social democratic base with his honest image and popular discourse, was now seen as the leader who will carry the CHP to power.
However, the political leadership process of Kılıçdaroğlu, which will extend perhaps to the presidency soon, did not start as successfully as expected. Kılıçdaroğlu, who made important democratic initiatives on behalf of the CHP on issues such as the freedom of headscarf in universities and public institutions and the absence of restrictions in university entrance exams for Imam Hatip Schools’ graduates, was not able to defeat AK Parti and Erdoğan in many elections. Despite the increase in vote rates of the party, CHP was still not a serious contender for AK Parti until recently. In fact, CHP, which received 19.39 percent of the votes in the 2007 general elections under the leadership of Deniz Baykal, took 20.87 percent in the 2011 general elections, 25.98 percent in the 2015 June general elections, 24.95 percent in the 2015 November general elections, and 25.32 percent in the 2018 general elections under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu. In that sense, Kılıçdaroğlu’s vote increase remained at the level of 5 percent compared to the Baykal period. Likewise, in the presidential elections, Kılıçdaroğlu could not show a superior performance that would meet the great expectations. In the 2014 presidential election, together with the MHP, CHP leader chose Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu a candidate, but could not prevent Erdoğan from being elected in the first round with 51.79 percent. Kılıçdaroğlu, who made Muharrem İnce a presidential candidate this time in the 2018 election, had to watch his candidate losing the election against Erdoğan in the first round again, this time with an even bigger difference in votes.
However, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a stubborn politician who does not give up easily, has started to follow a different strategy from this date on against the seemingly undefeatable AK Parti and its mighty leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. First of all, he organized a long walk called “Justice March” to show everyone how convinced and dedicated he is to defeat Erdoğan and to become Prime Minister or President. In this process, Kılıçdaroğlu, who managed to maintain his seat as chairman of CHP against Muharrem İnce during the party congress, drew a stronger profile with some restrictions on intra-party democracy. In addition, Kılıçdaroğlu succeeded in gaining serious gains in the context of his policy of recruiting opposition elements within the ruling bloc by supporting them. So, Kılıçdaroğlu, who first attracted the İYİ Parti (Good Party) and Meral Akşener from the MHP, later took the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) and the Democrat Party (DP), which were close to the government, with him, and finally, pulled the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi) and DEVA Party (Demokrasi ve Atılım Partisi), which emerged from the AK Parti recently, to his bloc. By doing this, he became the mastermind and the leader of the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı) or the “sextet chair” (altılı masa). In this way, Kılıçdaroğlu, who learned realpolitik over time, ensured that his party and bloc settled in a wide electoral base that could defeat the AK Parti, and he succeeded in opening his party/bloc not only to leftist voters, but to wider masses of the center and the center-right. In this way, Gandhi Kemal paved the way for his victory, probably in the 2023 elections.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s Identity, Ideology, and Political Style from the perspective of Political Science
In addition to these biographical and personal characteristics of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, another important feature for me is that, before he became a well-known name in the media, I had chance to meet and talk to him on a few occasions. Starting from 2008, I had the chance to meet with Kılıçdaroğlu, whom we visited at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey for the first time on the day he became the Deputy Chairman of the Group, and to listen to his ideas closely. In these meetings, Kemal Bey deeply impressed me and my friends with his moderate style, social democratic economic preferences, special attention to the youth, and his honest image that gave us confidence as well as the public, and gave the impression that he would fill the populist left leader’s seat that was vacated after Ecevit.
If I need to make a brief reminder about these meetings, Kılıçdaroğlu stated that he did not find the polarization environment in the 2007 Republican Meetings correct and he publicly expressed his social democratic views to us by expressing that no segment of the society should be excluded. Likewise, Kılıçdaroğlu, despite criticizing some of the double standards practices of the EU towards Turkey, underlined the importance of the EU membership process for Turkey’s democratization and drew a Westernist profile. In addition, Kılıçdaroğlu stated in our correspondence that we should not despair about the course of the country and invited everyone, including me, to the democratic struggle. With these views and style, Kılıçdaroğlu has succeeded in creating the ideal candidate image for me in difficult times since then. Nowadays, I am very happy to see that my prediction years ago that Kılıçdaroğlu was the ideal candidate to govern Turkey turned out to be true. Moreover, I think that Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach is correct and necessary in order to solve the economic, political, and social problems facing Turkey by raising the bar for democracy. Because, in an environment of desperation and economic hardship in nowadays Türkiye, riveted by the earthquake disaster, Kılıçdaroğlu stands out from many other politicians with his honesty, modesty, determination, and superior morals despite all these years.
Apart from these, Kılıçdaroğlu’s identity, personality, and ideas are almost like a chance for Türkiye, a country which has a strong national identity and a non-sectarian belief structure based on secularism, unlike countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, which are dragged into civil wars and turmoil in the Middle East. For me, the election of a politician from Tunceli and of Alevi and Zaza origin as the President of Türkiye, just like the election of an African American Barack Obama as the President in the United States of America several years ago, will be a very positive development that will prove that the political system in Turkey is not based on racist and sectarian foundations. This will both increase the loyalty of our citizens from different identities (Kurd, Alevi, Zaza, Eastern, leftist, etc.) to the Republican regime and to the state, and will show the whole world the level of development of Turkish democracy and the level of civilization of the Turkish people. However, at this point, Kemal Bey and his team need to stay away from compatriotism, sectarianism, and class-based politics by making politics on a line that covers all identities and groups. The way to do this is to adopt a transparent and democratic management approach based on merit.
If it is necessary to analyze Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s ideological line, it can be said that he is a social democrat with a predominant Westernism. However, this stance is not against Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Kemalism, but an inclusive social democratic line that includes the line of the great leader. Kılıçdaroğlu, who sincerely wants Turkey’s EU membership, is not a politician who would easily make concessions to Brussels. Despite his humanist and progressive ideas, Kılıçdaroğlu also developed his realism aspect over time. In addition, Kılıçdaroğlu, who does not want to give very harsh messages on the Syrian and Afghan refugees, does not ignore the reactions from the grassroots and also tries to deal with this issue peacefully.
Although Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu comes from the left and always defends the rights of the working classes, he should not be considered as a politician who thinks in a Marxist political plane. Because Kılıçdaroğlu’s worldview is inclined to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s line of solidarism rather than a Marxist understanding based on social classes. In that sense, similar to Atatürk, he tends to see the Turkish society on the basis of different professions, not different classes. Thus, Kılıçdaroğlu will be a leader who acts and decides according to the national interest rather than the class interest. In this context, if Kılıçdaroğlu is elected, he will want to play the role of conciliator between the capital owners and the working classes.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s most distinctive and angular political attitude is that he is an honest leader who fights against corruption. Therefore, those who want to work with Kılıçdaroğlu should be very meticulous and careful in ethical/moral issues. Likewise, in the state, Kılıçdaroğlu will not defend people whose corruption has been proven, regardless of their view or party. This attitude is the line needed by Türkiye, which is in the swamp of economic crisis and corruption. Kılıçdaroğlu’s this attitude brings to my mind the Chinese President Xi Jinping as well. In this sense, Kılıçdaroğlu may adopt a more modest style reminiscent of Ecevit in the state and have the protocol amended accordingly.
As Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly said, if he comes to power, he will struggle against the advantageous positions of Islamic groups in Türkiye. The way to do this is to build dormitories for all students and not to force any student to stay in Islamic brotherhoods’ dormitories. Similarly, unjust staffing in the state will be prevented and people who are pro-secular and of different faiths will be employed in state jobs as well. However, at this point, Kılıçdaroğlu should take a careful position and not activate fault lines that might increase social polarization. This, in my opinion, will be successful if it manifests itself as not being exclusionary against Islamic groups, but only eliminating their unfair competitive situation.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s foreign policy, on the other hand, will most likely be on a multidimensional line with a Western orientation. To open this; Kılıçdaroğlu will put Turkey back on the route of EU membership, but will not take a concessive position against Brussels, will try to improve relations with the United States, but will not risk Turkey’s independence, will not break relations with other great powers, especially Russia and China, due to national interests, but the West will prioritize. He will also want to improve relations with neighboring countries, but will not act dreamily in this regard. Kılıçdaroğlu will receive advice and support from experienced names within his party such as Faruk Logoğlu, Ünal Çeviköz, and Osman Korutürk. Ahmet Davutoğlu, a component of the Nation Alliance, will undoubtedly be a great opportunity for Kılıçdaroğlu as well with his previous experiences and immense knowledge.
Kılıçdaroğlu will also take action to return the country to the parliamentary system without losing much time in domestic politics and will try to make the Grand National Assembly of Turkey the most fundamental institution of the country’s politics. For this reason, Kılıçdaroğlu, whose modest style prevails, may turn the Presidential Palace into a public library, educational institution or community center and may impose restrictions on some issues in the state budget. In this context, his Presidency will mark a period in which Kılıçdaroğlu will temporarily direct the country’s politics directly, but eventually will leave a significant part of his powers to someone else after returning to the democratic system. This person could most likely be Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, and under Kılıçdaroğlu’s Presidency, he could become the main person running the country as Prime Minister and CHP chairman.
If Kılıçdaroğlu is elected, he should not hold grudges and should do everything in accordance with the law on the basis of justice. Because in Turkey and in many other non-institutionalized political systems, power changes can often turn into blood feuds and revenge processes. In order to prevent this, Kılıçdaroğlu must act carefully and in coordination with state institutions.
Finally, it should be said that the negative view of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidential candidacy because of his Alevi faith or his hometown being Tunceli is a shame not only for those who express this, but also for Türkiye. A person’s choice of ethnicity or religious/sectarian belief is often not even in his own power. To engage in discrimination and exclusion for such a reason would be an openly racist attitude. In this context, I remind you that the state, the political elite, and the media organs in Türkiye should publish responsibly in this regard. Lastly, I wish that the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections to be beneficial for our country. I would also like to add that as a Turkish patriot, we are ready to serve at every level of Turkey, no matter who is elected, and our sole purpose is to serve the public. Good luck to our nation…
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ