Istanbul: Turkey’s would-be successor to Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a deceivingly simple plan: ensure a smooth transition from two decades of Islamic-rooted rule and then leave after stripping the presidency of its powers.
Few thought Kemal Kilicdaroglu – a bookish former civil servant from a long-repressed religious group – would come so close to heading one of NATO’s most strategic states.
The 74-year-old social democrat has been trying to step out of Erdogan’s shadow since becoming the leader of the staunchly secular CHP in 2010.
He was defeated in his 2009 bid to become mayor of Istanbul by Erdogan’s ally and then lost every national election to the president’s right-wing AKP.
Kilicdaroglu’s dire electoral record nearly broke the six-party opposition alliance when he decided to challenge Erdogan in one of Turkey’s most consequential votes of modern times.
The anti-Erdogan coalition agreed to back his candidacy after arguing about it for a year.
It may have been a wise choice.
Polls show the man few outside Turkey have heard of running neck-and-neck with Erdogan ahead of next Sunday’s presidential ballot. A likely runoff on May 28 is too close to call.
“I am a very patient man,” Turkish analyst Gonul Tol quoted Kilicdaroglu as telling her in 2020.
The soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu is a study of contrasts to the brash and bombastic Erdogan – a populist whose gift for campaigning has helped him become Turkey’s longest-serving leader.
His silver mane and square glasses give Kilicdaroglu a professorial air that betrays his background as an accountant who worked his way up to head Turkey’s social security agency.
The campaign has seen him ignore Erdogan’s personal attacks and instead highlight the hardships all Turks have suffered over years of political and economic turmoil.
One of his main pledges involves handing many of the powers Erdogan has amassed in the last decade of his rule to parliament.
He then pledges to leave office and make way for a younger generation of leaders who have joined his multi-faceted team.
“I’m not someone with ambitions,” Kilicdaroglu told Time magazine ahead of the vote.
His dream was to “restore democracy” and then “sit in a corner, playing with my grandchildren,” he said.
Kilicdaroglu’s support is being helped in no small part by a cost-of-living crisis that analysts – and plenty of Turkish voters – pin on Erdogan’s unorthodox economic beliefs.
But it is backed up by a viral social media campaign that bypasses the state’s stranglehold on television by speaking to voters in snappy clips recorded from his retro-tiled kitchen.
These heart-to-heart chats get millions of views and tend to address topics that rarely appear in pro-government media.
One of the most famous saw Kilicdaroglu break taboos by talking about being Alevi.
The group has been targeted by decades of violent repressions because it follows a more spiritual Islamic tradition that separates it from both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Erdogan once accused Alevis of inventing a “new religion”.
“God gave me my life,” Kilicdaroglu said in the video. “I am not sinful.”
The late-night post racked up nearly 50 million views on Twitter by the following morning.
Some of his other policies have a steelier edge that evoke the nationalism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the first and most important leader of the CHP.
Kilicdaroglu vows to send nearly four million Syrians who fled civil war back to their homeland within two years.
He said the issue was not one of “race” but of “resources” in Turkey during its economic malaise.
Kilicdaroglu reaffirms that message by recalling his own humble upbringing in the Kurdish Alevi province of Tunceli.
“We didn’t have a fridge, washing machine or dishwasher,” he once said.
He later invited reporters to his pitch-black apartment to discuss his decision to stop paying his electricity bills.
It was a campaign-savvy statement of solidarity with Turkey’s inflation-hit voters that tried to bridge political divides.
“This is my struggle to claim your rights,” he said next to an old-fashioned lantern casting a glim glow across his desk.