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Newsmaker Interview: Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Leader of Main Turkish Opposition Party

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, being interviewed in Ankara by VOA Turkish Service reporter Baris Ornarli, seated left
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey's main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, being interviewed in Ankara by VOA Turkish Service reporter Baris Ornarli, seated left

VOA Turkish Service's Baris Ornarli's exclusive interview with the leader of the Republican People’s Party of Turkey, the main challenger of the ruling Justice and Democracy Party in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Ahead of parliamentary elections in Turkey this Sunday, VOA Turkish Service reporter Baris Ornarli, currently in Ankara, spoke to the Republican People’s Party leader about the main challenges the country faces today. The interview was conducted in Turkish and is rendered below in English translation.

Ornarli: What is the major challenge the Turkish electorate faces at the moment?

Kilicdaroglu: Unemployment. In every region in Turkey, everyone complains about joblessness. Unemployment is very high among the youth. This is the major hurdle that has to be dealt with. On the other hand, the current polices [of the government] are causing unemployment to grow further, instead of helping it diminish. Especially the manufacturing sector is going through some hard times. The country is increasingly depending on imports, often resulting in shutdowns of domestic plants. In the [southern Turkish] the province of Adana alone, nearly 40,000 workers have been laid off because of plant shutdowns. This is, of course, one of the fundamental problems in Turkey.

Ornarli: I recently was chatting with a cab driver in Ankara. He told me he was going to vote for the ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP). He also agreed that unemployment is the biggest problem in Turkey, and did not believe that any political party would be able to come up with a solution. Among the things the cab driver told me was, “even Kilicdaroglu himself would be unable to solve unemployment.” What would you tell this cab driver in response?

Kilicdaroglu: It can be solved. Any problem can be solved. There is no problem that cannot be solved, especially if it is an economic one. Economists have spent years resolving economic problems. Their search for solutions began long ago; they did not start looking for them yesterday. There are many schools of thought ranging from [John Maynard] Keynes to [David] Ricardo. There are many schools of thought in economics, social sciences and politics, to look for answers on how to solve the problem of unemployment. You have to develop a model of a productive economy, which is exactly part of our growth strategy. It is also wrong to keep the Turkish Lira overvalued which makes imports more appealing. This is how we intend to restructure the Turkish economy. I recently reiterated my points at a speech in the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey. I received more applause than Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan (who was present at the same meeting). I told them about my suggestions. I believe I made my points convincingly.

Ornarli: Another major problem in Turkey: The Kurdish issue. How would your party’s position differ from that of the governing party?

Kilicdaroglu: We are aware that no party alone can solve the Kurdish question. We have been strongly advocating for a long time to devote more efforts to our search for reconciliation based on the social level. We recommend setting up a council of experts, made up of representatives from all parties and non-governmental organizations. People must gather around a table to look for solutions to an existing problem, step-by-step look for common ground, and work on a solution. The AKP has not made a single effort in that direction. The ruling party once came up with its own internal solution, but while it was working on it, it ruled out sharing any of its plans with the public. This issue is still awaiting a solution, but the political institutions are not functioning properly, therefore it is heading towards a quagmire at a faster pace.

Ornarli: Do you feel the issue of terrorism should be kept at the margins of the Kurdish issue?

Kilicdaroglu: The issue of terrorism is not entirely different from the Kurdish issue. We have to admit that it is connected [to the Kurdish issue]. You can marginalize terrorism by implementing economic, social and political measures. We have to undertake a fundamental effort to win people over in the [Kurdish southeast] by addressing unemployment and poverty.

Ornarli: Recently an editorial in The Economist magazine has expressed its concern for democracy in Turkey, calling on the country’s electorate to vote for the main opposition CHP. What was your reaction to The Economist’s endorsement of your party?

Kilicdaroglu: It is not only the West that is gravely concerned about democracy and freedoms in Turkey; we are as much concerned. We have seen some things during this current government’s rule - things that you would not even see in the Middle Ages. We have witnessed a ban on a book before it was published. Nearly 60 journalists are in jail. We had not seen such things even during the last military rule [in the early 1980s]. People are sent to prison for trivial things. Special courts have been politicized. They are acting on behalf of the political authorities and are turning politically-motivated decisions by those authorities into legal verdicts. The recent unrest in [the northwestern border town of] Hopa, the arrests made after that, police raids in houses and the transfers of detainees to special court - they are all beyond imagination. We all want to improve democracy and freedoms in Turkey, but currently Turkey is moving towards a single party rule. We are dealing with more repressive and authoritarian methods with a prime minister who claims to know all and do all. We have to leave all this behind. There are good signs that we will succeed in that in the upcoming elections.

Once, a businessman claimed that the CHP would win the next elections. His comments sparked angry reactions [by ruling party circles]. When The Economist urged the Turkish electorate to vote for the CHP, it was made a major scapegoat. Those critical minds have no sense of democracy or freedom. They only support democracy and freedoms to serve their own rhetoric. They cannot tolerate opposing viewpoints.

Ornarli: Mr. Kilicdaroglu, it has often been pointed out that there is a “lack of opposition in Turkish politics,” both as perceived in Turkey and abroad. What kind of transformation has your party gone through after you took over the helm [last year].

Kilicdaroglu: The Republican People’s Party has taken a deep interest in people’s problems over that time. Only in the last six months, we ran the party headquarters as if it were a university campus. We have employed hundreds of people, including scholars, former bureaucrats, philosophers and others to come up with answers to all issues. We took on the issues of the country’s economy, education, national defense, energy, children’s and women’s issues, environment and poverty. We did our best to share our plans and projects with the people. However, it is not entirely possible to reverse the longstanding [negative] feelings towards our party. There are also the media organizations controlled by the prime minister himself. They have worked hard to vilify the Republican People’s Party. We are aware how difficult it is to reverse that ill will towards our party, but we are determined and we will succeed. We will make the Republican People’s Party the people’s party. We are going to gather everyone under our umbrella.

Is it appropriate to describe the current CHP standing as being closer to social democratic principles?

Kilicdaroglu: Yes, it can be said. Because we call our party the new Republican People’s Party, the party that reinvigorates the welfare state. Official figures indicate that close to 13 million people in Turkey live in poverty. Even the prime minister himself admits that the unofficial figures are much higher. But our anti-poverty projects also include the masses not on the books. We have prepared projects for more than 15.5 million poor people. People still starve to death 21st century Turkey and we owe it to our economic policies. However we have more billionaires [in US dollar value] than Japan. We have a very ill-managed system of wealth distribution. The current economic policies contributed to this picture. We want to change this picture. We would like to raise democracy and freedoms to Western standards.

Ornarli: Is there any particular conceivable limit to the number of votes that are cast for leftist parties in Turkey?

Kilicdaroglu: In the past, former CHP leader [and former Prime Minister] Bulent Ecevit’s populist style brought the amount of support to 42 percent. This gives us hope. We hope to significantly increase our support in the next years. There are signs of it in our political rallies. We embarked on our journey before the elections and will continue to work after the votes are cast. We aspire to [garner enough votes to be able to form a] government and raise Turkey to modern civilized standards. There is no reason for us to fail if we maintain our current pace.

Ornarli: Regarding the pro-democracy rallies by opposition forces in the Middle East - you realize that some of them are going through a bloody process. You are the leader of the main opposition in Turkey. Has there been talk that Turkey can serve as a model, as a source of inspiration for these countries?

Kilicdaroglu: Yes, indeed. Especially thanks to the latest communication technologies, the model of a modern, westernized Turkey created by [the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk is attracting more and more interest in the Middle East and in the Caucasus. The women, the young people in those regions aspire to have a Turkish model of democracy, maybe even something better than Turkish democracy. We do understand their demands. Of course, there must be respect for human rights, democracy and gender equality in those countries too. Their people wish their countries to be like Turkey, but our leaders aspire to emulate their leaders. This is our fundamental paradox. Our rulers must work to raise the standards of our already existing democracy and make improvements in those area where problems remain. But rather than moving in that direction, they are taking steps to restrict rights. People on the street fear their telephone conversations are monitored. We cannot call such a practice democracy. People are being robbed of their privacy [rights]. Worst of all, the illegal information being gathered is being used against his political opponents by the prime minister himself.