A retired civil servant from one of Turkey’s most repressed social groups has defied doubters by pushing veteran President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into a historic election runoff.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu may need to perform another minor miracle if he is to convert his May 14 performance into an outright victory next Sunday.
It is a mark of how far Kılıçdaroğlu, whom few outside Turkey have heard of, has come that his first-round result came off looking like a disappointment.
Erdoğan picked up 49.5 percent of the ballot, thus falling short of a first-round victory for the first time in 20 years of dominant rule.
Kılıçdaroğlu won more votes than any of Erdoğan’s past rivals finishing with 44.9 percent of votes cast.
But pre-election polls had shown the secular opposition leader within a whisker of breaking the 50-percent threshold needed for outright victory.
“Don’t despair,” the 74-year-old told his despondent supporters as the outcome became apparent. “We will stand up and take this election together.”
The May 28 runoff will present Kılıçdaroğlu with a chance to reverse a dire electoral record that has seen him lose his 2009 bid to become mayor of Istanbul and then half a dozen national votes to Erdoğan and his Islamic-rooted party.
Study of contrasts
The usually soft-spoken Kılıçdaroğlu is a study of contrasts to the brash and bombastic Erdoğan — a populist whose gift for campaigning has helped him become Turkey’s longest-serving leader.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s silver mane and square glasses give him a professorial air that betrays his background as an accountant who worked his way up to head Turkey’s social security agency.
The first stage of the campaign saw him ignore Erdoğan’s personal barbs and instead stress the hardships all Turks have suffered over years of political and economic turmoil.
One of his main pledges is to hand over to parliament many of the powers Erdoğan has amassed in the last decade of his rule.
The ambitious goal touches on the fear that Erdoğan instilled across swathes of Turkey’s society during purges he unleashed after surviving a failed 2016 coup.
It may also never happen. Erdoğan’s allies retain a parliamentary majority that can block any attempts to dilute presidential powers.
Other elements of his appeal look more enduring.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s support has been helped in no small part by a cost-of-living crisis that analysts — and plenty of Turkish voters — pin on Erdoğan’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.
One of the most famous saw Kılıçdaroğlu 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.
Erdoğan once accused Alevis of inventing a “new religion.”
“God gave me my life,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in the video. “I am not sinful.”
The late-night post racked up nearly 50 million views on Twitter by the following morning.
But Kılıçdaroğlu also has a steelier side that evokes the nationalism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — the first and most important leader of Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Kılıçdaroğlu has doubled down on his vow to send nearly four million Syrians who fled civil war back to their homeland.
“As soon as I come to power, I will send all the refugees home,” he said in his first post-election address.
The promise represents his most concerted attempt yet to win over right-wing voters who propelled Erdoğan to win the first round vote.
Kılıçdaroğlu argues that the refugee issue is not one of “race” but of “resources” during Turkey’s economic troubles.
He tries to soften the message by recalling his own humble upbringing in the Kurdish Alevi province of Tunceli.
He once 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 glow across his desk.
© Agence France-Presse