President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s newly anointed rival in May elections pledged on Tuesday to “end this madness” and turn Turkey into a peaceful nation in which its various communities get along.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu emerged victorious Monday from a bruising leadership battle between the heads of six parties united in the single goal of ending Erdoğan’s two-decade domination of this nation of 86 million people.
The bookish 74-year-old leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) party offers a study of contrasts to Erdoğan — a bombastic speaker and pious Muslim whose catchy charisma is offset by worries about his commitment to human rights.
Erdoğan had spent months ridiculing opposition leaders for repeatedly trying and failing to settle their rivalries and forge a common front at the ballot box.
Kılıçdaroğlu put an end to that on Monday by walking out on stage before celebrating supporters and raising the hands of some of Turkey’s most popular politicians that he hopes will put him over the top in the very close race.
These include the opposition mayors of İstanbul and Ankara — two leaders that polls show stand an even better chance of defeating Erdoğan.
Kılıçdaroğlu also secured the crucial backing of a staunchly nationalist party that can eat away at Erdoğan’s more traditional base of support.
Turkey’s bond prices shot up on hopes that this new team is strong enough to beat Erdoğan and then follow through on pledges to put the crisis-stricken country on a more predictable and market-friendly course.
“Today, we are very close to overthrowing the throne of the oppressors,” Kılıçdaroğlu told his party faithful in his final parliamentary address.
“Together, we will end this madness,” he added. “I am hopeful, my friends. I am very hopeful.”
The upcoming election is widely seen as Turkey’s most consequential since its birth as a post-Ottoman republic 100 years ago.
Erdoğan has shaped Turkish society in his image while turning the NATO member into a regional power that has engaged in wars across the restive region and is battling a Kurdish insurgency across its southern flank.
He also prides himself on having never been defeated at the polls.
The upcoming vote is turning into his toughest election test yet.
Erdoğan was battling a year-long economic meltdown when two massive earthquakes killed tens of thousands across Turkey’s southeast last month.
A top United Nations official on Tuesday estimated the cost of the damage at more than $100 billion.
But the political price for Erdoğan from his government’s slow response in the first days of the disaster is difficult to assess.
A poll by the Yoneylem social research center showed Erdoğan’s public approval holding steady at around 41 percent over an 11-month stretch up to late January — just days before the earthquakes hit on Feb. 6.
It also showed Kılıçdaroğlu’s support rising from 29 to 46 percent.
Gönül Tol of the US-based Middle East Institute said the opposition’s chances rose sharply after İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and his Ankara counterpart, Mansur Yavaş, agreed to join Kılıçdaroğlu’s proposed new government.
“The formula reached over the weekend significantly improves the opposition’s electoral prospects,” she wrote in a report.
Kılıçdaroğlu is now expected to reach out to leaders of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to try and further expand his appeal.
The HDP had been excluded from the opposition alliance because of some of its members’ more nationalist views.
But it joined a broad-tent coalition that won historic municipal elections across Turkey’s main cities in 2019.
“Kılıçdaroğlu is a master of creating coalitions in a polarized country by building bridges between political parties from both the left and right sides of the political spectrum,” IstanPol Institute director Seren Selvin Korkmaz said on Twitter.
The HDP has enjoyed the support of around 10 percent of Turkey’s voters and is seen as a kingmaker in the race.
The party signaled late Monday that it was halting plans to run its own candidate but would listen to new overtures from the opposition bloc.
“If the HDP [joins Kılıçdaroğlu], the opposition might win the elections in the first round, without having to go to a second-round run-off,” Tol wote.