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Turkey's 'Ghandi' Could Shake Up Nation's Politics

  • Dorian Jones

The new leader of Turkey's main opposition party is being heralded by much of the media as the Gandhi of Turkey because of his quiet demeanor and tendency to reject ostentation. His election is being heralded as a potential earthquake in Turkish politics.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 61, was elected leader of the center left People's Republican Party (CHP) with a landslide majority, one that provoked a carnival-like atmosphere at the party conference. In his first speech Kilacdaroglu promised to bring his party back to its center-left roots.

"We will fight corruption in a real sense and bring the injustice to an end," Kilicdaroglu said. "We will combat unemployment and poverty from the very beginning."

This is a very different kind of speech from his predecessor Deniz Baykal, who led the party for nearly 20 years until he was forced to quit earlier this month over a sex scandal.

Under Baykal observers say the party shifted towards the nationalist right and mainly engaged the ruling Islamic rooted AK party over policies that he claimed were aimed at undermining Turkey's secular state.

With Kilicdaroglu's ascent, those days seem to be over.

The new, more mild-mannered leader didn't mention secularism once in his opening speech - focusing instead on social injustice and, in particular, Turkey's chronic unemployment.

Kilicdaroglu's commitment to focus on such problems could be a winning formula, says political columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish daily Milliyet.

"Anybody he had slightly left leaning social democratic inclination really had nobody to vote for in this country," he said. "There is a public out there which is clamoring for change in the CHP. And therefore it may be very well be Mr. Kilicdaroglu is the man that transforms the party."

Observers say the abrasive nature of the former leader splintered the center left into various fighting factions. Now that trend could be reversing.

Immediately following the election of Kilicdaroglu, two independent parliamentary deputies from the left have joined the main opposition party, while other prominent left leaning figures in Turkish politics have rejoined CHP.

Kilicdaroglu's background, too, is very different for Turkish politics. He is an Alevi - which means he is a member of a progressive Islamic sect which is often discriminated against by orthodox Muslims in Turkey. He also comes from a predominantly Kurdish region of the country.

In his first speech he committed his party to reducing the 10 percent electoral threshold which effectively bars Kurdish regional parties from gaining entry in parliament. But he received some criticism for not directly addressing the ongoing conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish state.

Kilicdaroglu also has a humble reputation, dressing modestly and preferring public transport to chauffeur-driven limousines. He also speaks softly rarely raising his voice, something unusual in Turkish politics, resulting in some of the Turkish media describing him as the Turkish Gandhi.

Crucially, in a country continually hit by corruption scandals, he has made his political name exposing high-level government graft, forcing two members of from the ruling AK party to resign.

On the streets of Istanbul, at least for now, there appears to be a positive response to his election.

"Kilicdaroglu, he is honest and one of us, his thinking his ideas, just like us. I hope he is going to be much more powerful," said one man.

"I don't support his party, but he can make changes and those changes will change the country in a good way," said another man.

An opinion poll published last week suggested that Kilicdaroglu's appointment would attract more votes. With national elections due next year the ruling AK Party is facing its first serious contender since it came to power eight years ago. Turkish media say that's good for democracy.

Such sentiments are reflected by the opinion polls, with one reliable poll suggesting that Kilicdaroglu's election will attract more voters. For the first time since the ruling AK party came to power eight years ago, it's facing a serious contender. Murat Yetkin political columnist for the Turkish daily Radical, says that's good for democracy.

"In a pluralistic democracies governments get stronger with stronger opposition," he said. "You need a balancing power in front of the government."

There has been also a positive political reaction from the European Union. Political columnist Idiz says that's because there is hope that Kilicdaroglu will bring a new approach.

"The CHP says itself it's for the EU, but it has certainly has not been acting as party that is," he said.

It remains unclear whether Kilicdaroglu can maintain his political momentum, and critics point out he has given few policy details. Moreover, his quite demeanor could mean he'll wither in the cut and thrust of Turkish politics. But with just over a year to go to general elections, he has a momentum and has given belief back to his party, on which has been out of power for more than three decades.