|Kemal Kilicdaroglu, addressing an election rally, styles himself as a social democrat [REUTERS]
The leader of Turkey’s main opposition has pledged to make "fundamental changes" to Turkish society and to stand up for the country's poorest citizens, as he seeks to rebrand his party in the runup to Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), once the party of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has been out of power for decades and won barely a fifth of votes the last time the country went to the polls in 2007.
Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) won power in 2002 on a platform mixing liberal economics with Islamist-influenced social conservatism, the CHP, traditionally a staunch defender of Turkey’s secular establishment, has appeared out of step with the country at large.
But new leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has attempted to shift the party away from its Kemalist roots in favour of an agenda embracing greater individual liberties, enhanced press freedom, and reinforced rights for Turkey’s minorities, such as Kurds and Alevis.
|CHP leader takes election fight to Istanbul [Al Jazeera]
Kilicdaroglu, who styles himself as a social democrat, was elected to the party leadership last year after the CHP’s longstanding figurehead, Deniz Baykal, was forced to quit over a sex tape scandal.
Since then the former civil servant, nicknamed "Gandhi Kemal", both for his looks and his commitment to social justice, has sought to reduce the influence of the party old guard, with just 37 of the CHP's 101 current deputies making its current list of parliamentary candidates.
In an indication that Kilicdaroglu’s message is being heard, on Saturday the party staged its biggest rally in Istanbul, Turkey's main city, in 20 years.
"He symbolises honesty, no lies, no tricks," one woman told Al Jazeera. "His name stands for revolution, innovation and pro-people policies," another man said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught aboard his campaign bus in Istanbul, Kilicdaroglu said the "new CHP" had embraced democracy, freedom and peace, and would stand up for Turkey’s poor.
"What is new is a new constitution, an independent judiciary ... making these fundamental changes that society has been anticipating for so long," Kilicdaroglu told Al Jazeera.
"What is new, also, is the emphasis on a social state. In the past there was not enough emphasis made on the social state but now we are stressing it. We are trying to gain the 12,715,000 votes of poor people - we will present them with good opportunities."
While Erdogan's AKP has also pledged to introduce a new constitution based on greater liberties, Kilicdaroglu said the ruling party could not be trusted to keep its promises. In a separate interview earlier this year with Turkish Policy Quarterly, he accused the AKP of "despotic ambitions".
"The AKP made promises about democracy and freedoms in the past too. But under AKP rule, books are banned and confiscated, hundreds of journalists detained - some 60 journalists are in prison - businessmen cannot talk due to fear, there is so much pressure on them.
"Our understanding of democracy and freedoms are different. They (the AKP) wants democracy and freedoms only for themselves, we want them for all people."
In a series of policy initiatives that further distance the CHP from its illiberal past, Kilicdaroglu said the CHP would also abolish the ten per cent election threshold, which prevents smaller parties from entering parliament; grant official status for Alevi prayer houses; and set up a committee to investigate the disappearances of people in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
He also said the CHP would limit the powers of Turkey's military, which has periodically overthrown governments in the past and which former CHP leaders had defended as a bastion of the state.
But the party appears to face a long road back to power and influence. Opinion polls suggest the CHP can presently draw on the support of around 25-30 per cent of voters, but that still leaves it trailing the AKP, campaigning on a platform of economic prosperity and stability, by up to 20 points.
That could yet prove enough for the AKP to win a majority large enough to change the constitution without the co-operation of opposition parties, or even the need for a referendum.
"It’s hard for any opposition party to make inroads against a government when the economy is doing so well and Turks are feeling so self-confident,” said Al Jazeera's McNaught.
“But many people inside and outside Turkey argue that for the sake of a healthy democracy, it's essential that the country has a strong, effective alternative voice."
Turkey analyst Birol Baskan said that the CHP was functioning as an effective opposition under Kilicdaroglu by taking the AKP to task on issues such as corruption, inequality and poverty.
"In previous elections, the former leader [Baykal] was accusing the AKP of undermining the secular nature of the Turkish state. This is was the standard accusation raised, and a lot of people don't see it that way.
"But Kilicdaroglu has changed the discourse. They are now discussing real issues, such as corruption and inequality, and a lot of other problems which the AKP has so far failed to address. The CHP is really talking like a leftist party which, in my opinion, Turkey needs desperately."
Source: Al Jazeera