Facing a sea of umbrellas in the steady rain, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the Turkish opposition’s challenger to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in next month’s elections, smiles and promises “the return of spring.”
He calls the rain “pretty” even though it refuses to stop, dousing the crowd gathered in the northwestern city of Çanakkale to hear the discreet 74-year-old, whose azure campaign posters announce “I am Kemal, I am coming!”
The choice of Çanakkale owes nothing to chance for Kılıçdaroğlu, who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP) of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
It was here, at the entrance to the Dardanelles Strait, that Atatürk — then a young commander — distinguished himself in 1915 by repelling the Allied forces’ advance on the rumps of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
“I do not order you to attack, I order you to die!” Atatürk told his troops.
Nothing that dramatic happened on stage of Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign stop this week, where he was framed by the Turkish flag and portraits of Atatürk.
Kılıçdaroğlu emerged flanked by the two shining stars of the CHP — İstanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and his Ankara counterpart Mansur Yavaş — who had both unseated Erdoğan’s allies in watershed municipal elections in 2019.
’16 presidential planes’
“Our march to power begins in Çanakkale!” Yavaş exclaims. “We are emerging from the darkness and moving into the light.”
Trying to end Erdoğan’s two-decade rule, Kılıçdaroğlu has united six opposition parties that includes right-wing nationalists and liberals with promises of justice, democracy and the return of a certain political sobriety.
“I promise to sell the 16 presidential planes and buy fire engines!” Kılıçdaroğlu vows from stage.
“I promise” has become something of Kılıçdaroğlu’s refrain, also featuring in his TV ads and social media clips.
Under her soggy white hood, Selma Özcen, 63, sounds open to what Kılıçdaroğlu has to say.
“I happened to vote for the [current] government. But we want a fairer organization, a fairer power that doesn’t trample on rights,” she says.
“We no longer want the power of a single man,” adds Rezzan İşcen, two small Turkish flags in hand.
“We must change the old system and bring democracy, justice, the rule of law. Let the economy recover. We want a life without poverty, where children do not go to bed hungry,” the former civil servant says.
“Life has become so expensive, so hard. We want a better life.”
Onions and inflation
Some in the crowd of a few thousands brandish onions, a household staple and unwitting symbol of Turkey’s inflation, which has dropped to 50 percent from 85 percent last year, according to official figures.
Some independent economists believe the real annualized figure could be double the official one.
“I know Turkey’s problems. We all know them, and we will solve them,” Kılıçdaroğlu says.
“We have the knowledge, the experience and the strength. This strength is you!”
Just over a month before the vote, most opinion polls give Kılıçdaroğlu the lead, although not one large enough to guarantee victory in the first round.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s path to victory is also complicated by the last-minute entry of Muharrem İnce, CHP’s candidate in the last election in 2018, who is now on course to pick up roughly 5 percent of the vote.
Erdoğan, a veteran campaigner whose popularity has suffered from Turkey’s economic meltdown and the government’s delayed response to a February quake in which more than 50,000 died, is pledging to rebuild a “strong Turkey.”
‘You will win!’
At the foot of the Çanakkale stage, Arda Çakırer, a 20-year-old student with an earring and a thin beard, says he is “very moved.”
He will be voting for the first time in May, just like 6 million other young Turks who have known no leader other than Erdoğan.
Çakırer appreciates Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign pledge to give up power after serving out one term.
“This is very important,” Çakırer says. “After restoring order in the system, a younger president will be able to take over.”
Sema Sur, a 40-year-old in a headscarf, agrees.
“If we didn’t love him, we wouldn’t have come. We’re soaked, but we love him for the sake of our future, so that hope can flourish.”
The meeting ends, the rain stops, the umbrellas fold up and a sign held above the crowd comes into view.
“I promise you — you will win!” it assures the candidate.
© Agence France-Presse