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Meet Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Turkey’s long-derided opposition head who could dethrone Erdogan

The leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, who will face off against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in presidential elections May 14, is a far more complex figure than meets the eye.
Leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks during his party's group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey on Jan. 10, 2023.

On Nov. 23, 2011, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish leader to formally apologize for the massacres by the Turkish military of thousands of civilians in the eastern province of Tunceli in 1938. The genocidal campaign against the region’s Alevi Kurds, bombing people from the air, gassing them in caves, and bayoneting them to save bullets, remains the darkest stain on the modern Turkish Republic.

Erdogan’s words were dismissed by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as yet another cynical ploy to discredit their party and its founder, Kemal Ataturk, the Western-leaning father of modern Turkey. Today, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP’s current leader and an Alevi Kurd from Tunceli, whose forebears were among the victims, is the main opposition bloc’s candidate to run against Turkey’s strongman. More likely than not, Erdogan will use Kilicdaroglu’s Alevi faith to demonize him with majority Sunni voters ahead of watershed presidential and parliamentary elections that are due to be held in tandem on May 14.

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