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Türkiye opposition struggles to close gap with scandal-hit Erdogan

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DENizli, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey’s main opposition party has barely eroded support for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan despite months of anti-government protests, investigations into government graft and hours of incriminating talk Leaked online.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (C), leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), talks to lawmakers in his party during the Turkish parliament’s convening in Ankara, March 19, 2014. Reuters/Umit Bektas

At campaign rallies in more than 70 Turkish cities, Republican People’s Party (CHP) chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu emerged as Erdogan’s most staunch public critic amid a corruption scandal involving the prime minister, His family and his closest ministers.

Yet Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AK Party still holds a comfortable lead over the centre-left, staunchly secular CHP in the countdown to Sunday’s municipal elections.

“I’m talking about efforts to legitimize corruption through elections,” Kilicdaroglu said. “This is a test of our democracy.”

But his message has not resonated with religiously conservative Turks, who remain generally happy with AK Party rule after 12 years of solid economic growth. In their view, the CHP is like the exclusive bastion of Turkey’s old secular elite.

“The CHP fails to understand that politics is about meeting people’s needs, not just about concepts of identity like secularism,” said Bekir Agirdir, director of political research firm Konda.

“Instead of getting to know people better, it’s going down the same simple path it’s been going for years.”

A Konda poll showed the AK Party candidate won 46 percent of the total vote on Sunday, down from the 50 percent the party won in Turkey’s last parliamentary election in 2011.

The CHP’s support was 27 percent, unchanged from 2011, according to a survey of 3,067 people, while the two other groups in parliament – the Nationalist Movement Party and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democratic Party – had a combined 22 percent .

Other opinion polls showed a close race in the key battlegrounds of Istanbul, where Erdogan once served as mayor, and Ankara, the capital.

Ataturk’s Shadow

CHP’s voter base is largely restricted to the worldly-minded middle class. It lacks broader appeal due to a spotty record on minority rights, support for the military, which often meddles in politics, and – at least until recently – strong opposition to religious symbols such as the Islamic hijab.

The mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu, 65, has been quietly reforming the CHP, a hardcore “Kemalist” who would embrace a deadpan version of the ideas of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern secular republic. “Stand aside, while promoting members seen as closer to the European Union’s social-democratic values.

“He is looking for a balance between new reformists and traditional Kemalists to avoid splitting the party,” said Sahin Alpay, a political science professor at Bahcehir University who has served as a senior adviser to the CHP.

Kilicdaroglu denies that the CHP is still the same party founded 90 years ago by Ataturk that ruled Turkey unchallenged as a one-party state for a quarter of a century.

The party flourished again in the 1970s, but aside from a brief existence as the coalition’s junior partner in the 1990s, it was largely exiled until 2002, when it returned to parliament in the same elections that brought the AK to power.

Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as an anti-corruption campaigner for the CHP, appearing on television brandishing dossiers against officials, leading to a high-profile resignation.

He took over the party in 2010 after Deniz Baykal, who controlled CHP for 18 years, resigned amid a sex scandal.

Under Kilicdaroglu, new party constitutions set quotas for women and youth. The Center for Health Protection has also dropped its firm opposition to women wearing headscarves in public offices and schools.

“We may have made mistakes in the past. But we are not afraid to face our history … We are the fastest changing party in Turkey,” he said in an interview this week as he traveled to the southwest in a Cessna jet The town of Denizli participated in the rally.

Changes may not be fast enough this election, but with the AK Party hurt by a slowing economy and allegations of graft, Kilicdaroglu hopes the CHP will adapt to the new landscape.

Kilicdaroglu, nicknamed Gandhi for his resemblance to the father of Indian independence, has used his humble background to counter CHP’s Phnom Penh image. He was born in a village in the eastern Kurdish province of Tunceli, the only one of seven children to go to university.

“My mother and eldest sister couldn’t read and write. Before I went to school, I didn’t have a coat. Then I became the president of CHP. How about the elite?” he said. “Our numbers are made up of farmers, laborers and merchants.”

“Ill-gotten Wealth”

Erdogan, 60, has dismissed Kilicdaroglu as an incompetent rival and mocked the bespectacled former civil servant as a “manager”.

He accused Kilicdaroglu of colluding with his political opponents, including U.S. cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in Turkey hold high positions in the police and judiciary, and are believed to have launched graft investigations including wiretapping. Grant has denied any involvement.

To warm up the crowd in Denizli, the CHP played audio recordings leaked amid a corruption scandal that Erdogan branded as an international conspiracy to smear him.

“I believe the CHP will appeal to more religious voters because they recognize that the greatest sin is ill-gotten wealth,” said Kilicdaroglu, whose party candidates include a former mufti for a conservative borough in Istanbul. the mayor.

In Denizli, thousands gathered to hear Kilicdaroglu describe more inclusive cogeneration.

“Whether you cover your hair or not, all women have a place at my party,” he said to loud cheers.

Kiraz, a retired factory worker who wears a simple scarf around her hair as a sign of piety, wanted to hear what CHP would do for the poor. She declined to give her last name.

“Covered or not, I’m sure he’s going to take all the votes he can get,” she said with a laugh.

Edited by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones

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