Turkey's upbeat Kilicdaroglu says election will bring a new spring
By Ece Toksabay and Huseyin Hayatsever
ANKARA (Reuters) - He is not as charismatic as Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, but mild-mannered Kemal Kilicdaroglu is optimistic about his chances of beating Erdogan in Sunday's election, promising a new spring after two decades of his rival's tumultuous governance.
Long stuck in the shadow of Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP), opposition leader Kilicdaroglu has flourished on the campaign trail with polls showing he has a slight lead.
"I am asking everyone to stay calm and to remember that we are bringing spring to this country," he told Reuters in an interview at his office in Ankara two days ahead of what many see as modern Turkey's most consequential vote.
"Never have a pessimistic mood," he said in a message to supporters. "Remember that we will replace an authoritarian rule with the votes we cast," he added.
He has pledged to set Turkey, Europe's second-largest country, on a new path and roll back much of the legacy of the man who has taken tight control of most of its institutions.
Kilicdaroglu's top priority however is a return to orthodox economic policies and the parliamentary system of governance, and independence for a judiciary critics say Erdogan has used to crack down on dissent.
"We need to appoint someone who is trusted by financial circles as the head of the central bank. This is the first thing foreign investors will see. Plus, we will ensure the independence of the central bank," he said in the interview.
"We are forming Champions League teams in every department. From politics to economics, from education to culture. We will rule the country with the most competent teams," he said.
His plan aims to cool inflation that hit 85% last year and solve a cost-of living crisis that has impoverished many Turks.
An alliance of six opposition parties named the earnest and sometimes feisty former civil servant as its candidate to take on Erdogan in Sunday's elections.
Opinion polls showed Kilicdaroglu, 74, holding an edge, and possibly winning in a second round vote, after an inclusive campaign promising solutions to a cost-of-living crisis that has eroded Erdogan's popularity in recent years.
"I know people are struggling to get by. I know the cost of living and the hopelessness of young people," Kilicdaroglu told a rally this month. "The time has come for change. A new spirit and understanding is necessary."
Critics say Kilicdaroglu - who is scorned by Erdogan after suffering repeated election defeats as chair of the Republican People's Party (CHP) - lacks his opponent's bombastic style and domineering power to steer his alliance once elected.
He "portrays a totally opposite image from Erdogan, who is a polarizing figure and fighter who consolidates his voter base," said Birol Baskan, a Turkey-based author and political analyst.
"Kilicdaroglu appears much more statesmanlike, trying to unify and reach out to those not voting for them... That is his magic, and very difficult to do in Turkey," he said. "I'm not sure he will win, but he, Kilicdaroglu, is the right character at the right time."
If he wins, Kilicdaroglu faces challenges keeping an opposition alliance including nationalists, Islamists, secularists and liberals united. His selection as candidate came after a 72-hour dispute in which the leader of the second-biggest party, IYI's Meral Aksener, briefly walked out.
His biggest task would be erasing the footprints which Erdogan and his party left on all organs of the state, from the military to the judiciary and media, cramming them with loyalists and sidelining liberals and critics.
Kilicdaroglu said a fundamental problem of Turkey's foreign policy during the tenure of Erdogan's AKP was the exclusion of the foreign ministry in the policy making process.
'PEACE-ORIENTED FOREIGN POLICY'
"We would pursue a peace-oriented foreign policy that prioritises Turkey's national interest. Our priority is our national interests and to act in line with the modern world," Kilicdaroglu added.
Analysts say Erdogan, the country's longest-serving leader, is closer than ever to defeat despite the government's record fiscal spending on social aid ahead of the vote.
The opposition has stressed that Erdogan's drive to slash interest rates set off the inflationary crisis that devastated household budgets. The government says the policy stoked exports and investment as part of a programme encouraging lira holdings.
Before entering politics, Kilicdaroglu worked in the finance ministry and then chaired Turkey's Social Insurance Institution for most of the 1990s. In speeches, Erdogan frequently disparages his performance in that role.
A former economist, he became an MP in 2002 when Erdogan's AKP first came to power, representing the centre-left CHP, a party established by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk which has struggled to reach beyond its secularist grassroots toward conservatives.
However, he has spoken in recent years of a desire to heal old wounds with devout Muslims and Kurds.
Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as the CHP's anti-graft campaigner, appearing on TV to brandish dossiers that led to high-profile resignations. A year after losing a mayoral run in Istanbul, he was elected unopposed as party leader in 2010.
Born in the eastern Tunceli province, Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi, a minority group that follows a faith drawing on Shi'ite Muslim, Sufi and Anatolian folk traditions.
Nicknamed "Gandhi Kemal" by Turkey's media because his slight, bespectacled appearance bears a resemblance to India's independence hero, he captured the public imagination in 2017 when he launched a 450 km (280 mile) "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul over the arrest of a CHP deputy.
(Additional reporting by Burcu Karakas, Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean)