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Turkish challenger Kilicdaroglu pledges 'true democracy'

May 10, 2023

The man hoping to unseat Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey's president in elections this weekend told DW he wanted to turn foreign policy around "180 degrees" and to "bring true democracy to this country."

Kemal Kilicdaroglu
Image: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu told DW that he and his six-party alliance would "fulfill people's longing for democracy" and would "turn towards the West" in foreign policy matters if successful at the polls on Sunday. 

"We will fulfill people's longing for democracy. That's the biggest change and it won't only be seen here in Turkey but by the whole world," Kilicdaroglu told DW. "We will bring true democracy to this country." 

Polls suggest that the Nation Alliance with Kilicdaroglu as the candidate — long the leader of the center-left CHP, Turkey's second-largest political party after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP — could pose the biggest threat to Erdogan in his 20 years in power. 

Although they differ on which candidate has the upper hand in the days before the vote, opinion pollsters concur that Turkey's presidential election should be close.

Kilicdaroglu: 'We will bring democracy to Turkey'


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Confident of high turnout, and victory 

Kilicdaroglu told DW's Turkey correspondent Julia Hahn more than once that he was confident of victory during their discussion on his campaign bus on the sidelines of an event in the northern city of Bolu. 

Bolu is one of the cities that Kilicdaroglu's CHP reclaimed from Erdogan's AKP in local elections in 2019, with the most important such gain surely being in Istanbul.

"I told the people to go to the polling stations and vote and a lot of people will go there and vote in these elections. And we will win and send Erdogan away," he said. 

Early voting for eligible Turkish citizens living abroad, with roughly 1.5 million of them residing in Germany, closed on Tuesday.

Turkey will choose between incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu on SundayImage: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Domestic and international topics have both played a part on the campaign trail. Issues include economic turbulence and sky-high inflation (72% year-on-year in 2022), the aftermath of a major earthquake in southeastern Turkey earlier this year, the high number of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war living in Turkey, and Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and Turkey's tricky position as a NATO member situated very close to Russia's borders. 

'We will turn foreign policy around 180 degrees'

Asked about foreign policy, Kilicdaroglu pledged pronounced changes if victorious. 

Under Erdogan, Turkey has engaged with Russia on a number of issues such as brokering the agreement on allowing Russian and Ukrainian grain exports to leave via the Black Sea despite the conflict.

Erdogan also held up Finland's bid to join NATO and continues to hold up Sweden's, claiming the countries offer shelter to "terrorists" loyal either to Kurdish rebels or to an exiled Erdogan rival, Fethullah Gülen, blamed for 2016's failed coup.  

And even prior to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine Turkey's acquisition of Russian defense equipment had caused tension within NATO. 

"We are a member of the NATO alliance. We are also a country that has applied for membership of the European Union," Kilicdaroglu told DW. "Therefore, we will turn towards the West and towards Western civilization. Of course, we would like to have good relations with Russia. We have many business people working there. But we do not think Russia's invasion of Ukraine is right and we do not accept it."

What kind of Turkey do young people want?


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Kilicdaroglu also said he wanted to revive Turkey's long-stalled bid to join the European Union, a process that formally began in 1999 — a few years before Erdogan came to power as prime minister in 2003 — but has regressed if anything in recent years. 

"We will turn Turkey's foreign policy around 180 degrees. We'll bring all the democratic rules stipulated by the European Union to our country," he said. "The leaders of our six-party opposition alliance have agreed on all the arrangements that need to be made within this framework agreement, and we will implement them in our country."

Six-party Nation Alliance hoping to collectively oust Erdogan

Kilicdaroglu, 74, worked as an economist and civil servant before entering politics. He's led the CHP since 2010 and is no stranger to defeat to Erdogan at the ballot box.

Back when Erdogan was still Turkey's prime minister, before he switched to president and moved many powers towards that office, Kilicdaroglu led the CHP to second place in general elections in 2011. But it is the first time the CHP leader has put himself forward as a presidential candidate against Erdogan, with other politicians having challenged the incumbent and lost in recent presidential votes. 

He's at the head of a six-party coalition calling itself Nation Alliance. Besides his CHP originally established by modern Turkey's founder and first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the broad coalition includes two breakaway factions formerly from Erdogan's AKP and three other parties deemed more conservative than the CHP.

Pro-Kurdish parties like the HDP have also urged their supporters to back Kilicdaroglu, threatening another area where the AKP tended to fare well at the polls because of a gradual easing of conflict in the region during Erdogan's tenure.

Kilicdaroglu's comments on Syrian refugees in Turkey last week also drew international attention. With an estimated 3.5 million Syrians in Turkey and public patience waning with their lengthy stay amid a 12-year Syrian conflict, the opposition leader said he would restore relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and relocate the refugees in Syria with the help of EU funds.

He said that if the EU did not cooperate, then he would let the refugees move on towards Europe, in threats more than a little reminiscent of past ones made by Erdogan.

'No one should be in jail because of their thoughts'

Asked about political prisoners like philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician and former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, Kilicdaroglu said they would be released under his leadership. 

"There are already judicial decisions for their release and those decisions must be implemented," he said. "No one should be in jail because of their beliefs." 

Kilicdaroglu sidestepped questions on whether he feared for his personal safety in a heated campaign and on what was at stake should he lose on Sunday, saying only that he was focused solely on the campaign and that "we will not lose the election."

DW's Julia Hahn conducted the interview in Bolu, northern Turkey. 

Edited by: Sean Sinico

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