ISTANBUL — The main opposition candidate aiming to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in elections next month has pledged to undo the legacy of the longtime Turkish leader and focus on strengthening democracy, easing a cost of living crisis and battling corruption.
The candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is aiming to attract voters who may have tired of the president’s bombastic rhetoric and tough-guy persona, campaigning not just as an anti-Erdogan, but also as his polar opposite: a calm everyman who says he plans to retire after a single five-year term.
While Mr. Erdogan, 69, thrives in settings that showcase his power and put him among other world leaders, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, 74, addresses voters from his modest kitchen with a glass of tea at his elbow and dish towels hanging from the oven behind him.
“Our democracy, economy, judicial system and freedoms are under heavy threat from Erdogan,” the former civil servant said in a recent kitchen campaign video. “I will put the state on its feet again and heal the wounds, and I will give back the joy of life to the people.”
The presidential and parliamentary elections set for May 14 could drastically reshape Turkey, one of the world’s 20 largest economies and a NATO ally of the United States, not least because opinion polls suggest Mr. Erdogan is more vulnerable at the ballot box than at any other time in his 20 years as Turkey’s predominate politician.
Chronic inflation that many economists attribute to his financial management stands at 50 percent and has eroded family budgets, angering voters. Devastating earthquakes in February, which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey, sparked anger at the slow response and raised questions about whether the government’s failure to curb lax building practices increased the death toll.
Mr. Erdogan’s years at the helm have made him the face of Turkish foreign policy, with supporters saying he has boosted Turkey’s global stature and critics accusing him of over-personalizing foreign relations, weakening the diplomatic corps. He has maintained ties with Ukraine while meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, despite the war between them. He has used Turkey’s veto to snarl the expansion of NATO, making allies question his loyalties.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu has promised to to run the country differently, and is betting that many Turks are ready for a change.
But first, he must face Mr. Erdogan, a deft campaigner who has tightened his control of the state and can marshal its resources for his campaign.
“Kilicdaroglu is the antithesis of Erdogan,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a Turkey scholar at the Brookings Institution. “To Erdogan’s virile political aggression, he is a soft-spoken gentleman. In terms of his platform, he is not just a democrat, but is promising to be a uniter.”
Recent opinion polls suggest a slight lead for Mr. Kilicdaroglu. Two other candidates are also running. One is not expected to get many votes. The other is a former member of Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s party who could siphon away opposition votes, denying Mr. Kilicdaroglu a majority in the first round and forcing a runoff with Mr. Erdogan on May 28, according to some projections.
Mr. Erdogan is seeking his third five-year term. Mr. Kilicdaroglu has promised to retire after a single term so he can spend time with his grandchildren.
Since 2010, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has been the leader of the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., the largest opposition party, which has been regularly trounced at the ballot box by Mr. Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party.
In 2009, Mr. Kilicdaroglu lost the race for mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic engine. His party’s candidates also lost in Istanbul in 2014 and in presidential races against Mr. Erdogan in 2014 and 2018.
The C.H.P. has failed to significantly increase its seats in Parliament in four elections since 2011 and twice failed to block referendums that expanded Mr. Erdogan’s powers.
Mr. Erdogan took aim at Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s record before nationwide municipal elections in 2019.
“You could not even herd a sheep,” he said, rhetorically addressing Mr. Kilicdaroglu. “You lost nine elections. Now you will lose the 10th.”
Opposition supporters counter that the 2019 elections provide a template for victory because the opposition defeated Mr. Erdogan’s candidates in a number of cities, including Turkey’s two largest, Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, where Mr. Erdogan launched his own political career as mayor in the 1990s.
Offering perhaps another glimpse at the future, the government’s electoral commission voided the 2019 results in Istanbul, alleging irregularities and calling for a redo. The opposition won that, too.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu rarely attacks Mr. Erdogan by name to avoid galvanizing the president’s loyalists. But after the devastating earthquakes in southern Turkey on Feb. 6, he accused Mr. Erdogan of pursuing policies that left the country vulnerable to such disasters. Construction has played a large role in economic policies during Mr. Erdogan’s tenure, raising questions about whether safety standards were ignored amid a push for economic growth.
“There is one person fully responsible for all of this: Erdogan,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said during a visit to the quake zone. “Whenever Erdogan brings this country down, he makes calls for unity. Spare me.”
He often accuses Mr. Erdogan’s government of misusing state funds and has vowed to investigate accusations of sweetheart deals with companies close to the president.
If he wins, he has said, he will return the country to a parliamentary system, undoing constitutional changes that allowed Mr. Erdogan to expand his powers. He has vowed to restore the independence of the judiciary, the central bank and the foreign ministry, which he and other critics say have fallen under Mr. Erdogan’s control.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu represents six opposition parties that have united against Mr. Erdogan, broadening his base. He also has the tacit support of Turkey’s largest Kurdish party, which could give him about an additional 10 percent of the electorate.
Both Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Kilicdaroglu grew up poor, the first in a scrappy Istanbul neighborhood, the second in an isolated village in central Turkey.
As a child, Mr. Kilicdaroglu wore the same pair of shoes for years, he has said. While studying economics in university in Ankara, he walked everywhere to save money on transport. He often writes his speeches on the backs of used sheets of paper.
After university, he worked for nearly 30 years as a civil servant and ran Turkey’s social security administration.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s conspicuous financial modesty distinguishes him from Mr. Erdogan, who exudes a flashiness and had hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a new presidential palace that is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace.
After retiring from the civil service, Mr. Kilicdaroglu won a seat in Parliament and caught the nation’s eye by confronting executives and officials with corruption allegations on live TV.
In 2010, after a sex tape scandal forced his predecessor to resign, Mr. Kilicdaroglu became the head of the C.H.P., the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago this year.
In 2017, at age 69, he protested the arrest of a fellow parliamentarian on what he dismissed as bogus espionage charges by walking more than 250 miles from Ankara to Istanbul in 23 days holding a sign that read “justice.” The march concluded with a large rally, but the momentum he generated to challenge what he called Mr. Erdogan’s weaponization of the judiciary quickly fizzled.
Critics noted that Mr. Kilicdaroglu had voted for the law that had lifted legal immunity for members of Parliament, paving the way for the arrest of his colleague and other political figures.
That same year, the results of a referendum that expanded Mr. Erdogan’s powers were marred by claims of fraud, but Mr. Kilicdaroglu did not mount a significant challenge.
Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s often-tepid challenges to Mr. Erdogan’s government have raised questions about his ability to stand up to maneuvers he could face from Mr. Erdogan in the election.
“We are in the hands of a bureaucrat who is overcautious most of the time,” said Soli Ozel, a lecturer in international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
But for now, Mr. Kilicdaroglu is the only hope for Turks seeking a change from Mr. Erdogan.
“This is not the election to open the gates of heaven,” Mr. Ozel said. “It is the election to close the gates of hell.”
Safak Timur contributed reporting from Istanbul.