Is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu Turkey's Zelig?

May 10, 2023

Contrary to Wood Allen's famous mockumentary character Zelig, Kılıçdaroğlu's attitude changes, deep zigzags, and rhetoric of reconciliation are not for the sake of being loved but for coming to power.
CHP Genel Başkanı ve Millet İttifakı Cumhurbaşkanı Adayı Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Uşak’ta düzenlenen bir mitingde. 24 Nisan 2023 Foto: Anadolu Ajansı


ccording to his own account, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, born in Dersim, which was later renamed Tunceli, is a 74-year-old leader from Turkey’s “`68 generation,” who worked at the Scientific Board of the Federation of Social Democracy Associations, participated in almost all student protests, and served as president of the Social and Cultural Actions Association. After 26 years in the bureaucracy, he tried to pursue a political career by knocking on the door of Bülent Ecevit, the DSP (Democratic Left Party) leader, who was famous for challenging the Republican People’s Party (CHP) founder and national chief İsmet İnönü, but to no avail. Thus, Kılıçdaroğlu entered politics with the Republican People’s Party in 2002.

Kılıçdaroğlu became the party’s chairman in 2010 after the late Deniz Baykal, the former CHP leader, who was firmly committed to the party’s founding principles of Six Arrows, was brought down by a videotape blackmail scandal. No one would have guessed until recently that a former general director of the Social Security Institution (SGK), who is remembered for walking backwards down the long corridor of the Prime Ministry following his meeting with former prime minister Tansu Çiller, could one day become a candidate for the presidency of Turkey.

In fact, his most strategic move was to string three Islamist conservative parties, albeit very small ones, in front of him like beads. Otherwise, it would have been impossible for him to form an alliance with the right-wing nationalist Iyi Party (Good Party), let alone the HDP, the PKK’s political arm, which alone collects far more votes than these three small parties.

It was mathematically and politically impossible for the CHP, whose presidential candidate received only 30 percent of the vote in the previous election and which has never once been in power on its own in Turkey’s multiparty political history, to get anyone elected president from its ranks with its historical baggage. “I promise Mr. Kemal will not go back on his word. I promise you, Mr. Kemal will not go back on his word.” With this slogan, he became one of the two favorite candidates for the presidential elections. At least this should not have been the election slogan!

Ibn Khaldun says that a person belongs wherever they identify themselves with. In interviews Kılıçdaroğlu gave after he became CHP chairman, he stated, “My grandfather’s grandfather was a bandit, they used to say so, that’s probably why my father changed our surname from Karabulut to Kılıçdaroğlu.” In 2018, in in a party speech, he said, “My great-grandfather was Seyyid Mahmud Hayrani.” If the 13th-century Sufi scholar Seyyid Mahmud Hayrani was his grandfather, Kılıçdaroğlu’s ancestry hails from the Ottoman Palace with one of his great-grandfathers being the qadi of Mehmed the Conqueror and another being his grand vizier!

Kılıçdaroğlu once made a long speech at the Yörük Workshop, saying, “What struggles were waged in these tents against the oppression of the Ottomans!” However, before the Great Yörük gathering in January 2023, he did not call the Ottomans cruel this time, but visited the tombs of the people he claimed were his grandfathers in front of television cameras. He did not stop there, but visited tombs in every city during the election campaign.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not convert from Alevism to Sunnism like the French King Henry IV who converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in order to become king, famously saying “Paris is worth a mass.” This is not necessary. Turkey is not France. Protestant socialist leader Lionel Jospin fell behind even the country’s far-right Breton leader  in the first round of French elections to 2002. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is no Jospin either.

Ensar Öğüt, former CHP deputy, who published a book on Kılıçdaroğlu and often speaks in media outlets in support of him, repeatedly says that “Kılıçdaroğlu knows the Holy Quran by heart. He even memorized the Quran,” which makes him a hafiz. This year, for the first time, Kılıçdaroğlu visited the mosque of Hırka-i Şerif, which is opened to visitors every year during the holy month of Ramadan, where the mantle of the Prophet Muhammad is exhibited. On Laylat al-Qadr night, he gave a speech at an iftar dinner in which he talked about “Asma-ul-Husna,” the attributes of Allah. He announced his candidacy on the night of Berat, one of the holy days of Muslims.

At the headquarters of the host Felicity Party (FP), Temel Karamollaoğlu, FP leader, not only announced Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidential candidacy, but asked Allah, “for the sake of the night of Berat, to grant Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy a successful outcome.” The other four leaders of the Nation Alliance, seniors with white beards and green turbans, and CHP supporters shouting “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” all said “Amen” to this.

When Kılıçdaroğlu moved from the FP headquarters to those of the CHP accompanied by journalists, he embraced his party members in front of two giant banners reading “Among friends, at the Halil İbrahim Table” and “Kılıçdaroğlu, the President of the Turkish Nation.” This was a version of the lines “a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of neither this nor that” by the communist poet Nazım Hikmet, who was imprisoned for years under the CHP government. The lines originally read “among friends, at the table of the sun, fill up, children, fill up glasses, let’s drink.”

Politicians everywhere in the world change their views over the years, which is neither necessarily good or bad. Sometimes politicians do not say things openly; first, they take the pulse of politics and society, and, in time, they declare their stance on issues more openly. Kılıçdaroğlu’s change of position on the Dersim issue is, of course, understandable. However, his twists and turns on secularism and the freedom of religion debate, or his positions on the July 15 military coup attempt are not the same.

In 2008, he stated, “The Dersim issue should not be perceived as a very dark and deep event in the history of the republic,” while in 2011 he changed his position after then prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan said, “If it is necessary to apologize on behalf of the state, I do.” In fact, Hüseyin Aygün, CHP’s Tunceli deputy, who was introduced to politics by Kılıçdaroğlu, had first opened the debate. While Erdoğan said, “Dersim is the most painful and bloody of the tens and hundreds of disasters of the CHP governments… It is actually the CHP that should confront and apologize for the Dersim tragedy,” Kılıçdaroğlu simply said, “There are those who were exiled, their lands should be returned. Return them exactly as they were.” And he never spoke about this issue again.

Until recently, Kılıçdaroğlu has followed the path of his party’s anti-freedom of religion actions and rhetoric, which has historically/in the republican era been backed by the military and judiciary. He was at the forefront of the headscarf debates arguing “the headscarf is not a headscarf, but a turban,” “the turban is a political symbol,” or “a turban is nothing more than a piece of cloth.” He even appealed to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of the amendment that allowed women to wear the headscarf in universities.

Unsurprisingly Kılıçdaroğlu changed his position after the AK Party government’s legislative amendments allowing women the freedom of dress, from students to women holding public sector jobs. So much so that in a speech he made in the parliament on March 8, International Women’s Day, he said, “They took away your right to education because you wear a headscarf,” as if the perpetrator of the ban was unknown. But still today – and this is not just about the headscarf – there is no written document, even for propaganda purposes, on the CHP policy on secularism and religious freedoms both in terms of politics and legislation.

In a country where a prime minister and three ministers were executed by military coups, the opinions and statements of politicians in this regard are of course important. Judging by his words and actions, Kılıçdaroğlu’s position on this issue, and many others, is ambiguous.

This comes with one exception perhaps: in various discussions, Kılıçdaroğlu has made his position very clear against coups. “We reject any interference in politics through a midnight military declaration or any other means. If there is a coup, I will be the first one to stand against the tanks.” Yet, on the night of July 15, 2016, when he saw the coup plotters surrounding Atatürk Airport with tanks, he and his companions fled, putting up no objections.

While the U.S. think tank Stratfor posted the coordinates of President Erdoğan’s plane on social media to facilitate the coup plotters shooting it down, Kılıçdaroğlu was at Bakırköy mayor Bülent Kerimoğlu’s house watching the broadcasts about the coup on TV, coffee in hand. He released this image to the media through his press advisor. Nevertheless, when the coup attempt failed, killing 251 people and injuring 2,196 others, he claimed, “We opposed the coup together with our nation under the bombs until the morning.” Later on, he answered to whoever asked that “everything is theater,” and finally, in response to a question in which he was reminded of all his contradictory statements about the coup, he said, “Well, they should have brought a tank. Where is the tank?”

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to understand him not through Ibn Khaldun but through Woody Allen’s film Zelig. In the film, the character Zelig is a resistance fighter with the resistance, a republican in the presence of a republican, a democrat when he sees a democrat, while even his physical characteristics change according to his interlocutor. Zelig is an Irishman one day, a fat, pot-bellied man the next, a Black man the following. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu resembles the perfect conformist who takes the issue of harmony to the extreme.

Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly said that he is absolutely against a president with a party, and this nonpartisan discourse was the cement that brought the Table of Six together. Earlier, he had claimed, “If the chairman of a party becomes a presidential candidate and is elected, how will he swear on his honor and dignity to be impartial?” “Is my honor and dignity so cheap?” he asked. Numerous such statements are available on the CHP website. However, with an astonishing twist, he decided to hold both the chairmanship of the CHP and the presidency, if he is elected, and inserted this as Article 11 of the Nation Alliance’s joint road map.

In Wood Allen’s mockumentary, the audience eventually feels compassion for Zelig because all his superhuman efforts at harmony are actually only for the sake of being loved. Conversely, Kılıçdaroğlu’s deep zigzags, rhetoric of reconciliation, and attitude changes are for the sake of winning the elections and coming to power. As a matter of fact, his various contradicting nicknames have made their way to Wikipedia, the popular encyclopedia of the post-truth era! There, Kılıçdaroğlu nicknames include “Piro” (title meaning “leader” in Alevi culture), “Bozkurt” (Gray Wolf, representing Turkist nationalists), “Democrat uncle of the youth,” calm power, “Mr. Kemal,” “Gandhi Kemal,” “mujahid,” “sayyid” (title used for the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), and so on!

Kılıçkaya worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet and Milliyet newspapers. In 1992 she moved to Paris and completed her studies in International Relations. After returning to Turkey in 2009, Kılıçkaya started working for Habertürk. In 2016, she formed a three-part documentary on DAESH.