IZMIR, Turkey — Danger comes in many forms.
For Turkey’s long-time leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it comes in the shape of a former civil servant, given to making heart emojis with his hands.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, backed by a six-party opposition alliance, says if he wins he will bring freedom and democracy to Turkey, whatever it takes.
“The youth want democracy,” he told the BBC. “They don’t want the police to come to their doors early in the morning just because they tweeted.”
He is the Islamist leader’s main rival in elections on 14 May and has a narrow lead in opinion polls. This tight race is expected to go to a second round two weeks later.
Currently Turks can go to jail for “insulting the president”. Many have.
“I am telling young people they can criticize me freely. I will make sure they have this right,” says the 74-year-old, who leads the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Some of Kilicdaroglu’s supporters fear for his safety but he says it comes with the territory.
“Being in politics in Turkey means choosing a life with risks. I will walk my path whatever Erdogan and his allies do. They can’t put me off. They can’t scare me. I made a promise to this nation.”
President Erdogan, 69, has mocked his rival in the past saying he “couldn’t even herd a sheep”. But he’s harder to dismiss now.
Arriving for a rally in the port city of Izmir, an opposition stronghold, the opposition candidate is greeted by a sea of flag-waving supporters.
There are chants of “Kilicdaroglu is the hope of the people”. Many in the crowd are young. Five million Turks will vote for the first time in this election.
At 15, Oguz is too young to go to the polls but couldn’t stay away from the rally. “He is a good person, and he sees the future positively. If he becomes president our economy will rise, and we will rise.”
Kilicdaroglu said before the rally he would reorient Turkey, and prioritize relations with the West, not the Kremlin.
“We want to become a part of the civilized world,” he said. “We want free media and complete judicial independence. Erdogan doesn’t think that way. He wants to be more authoritarian. The difference between us and Erdogan is the difference between black and white.”
But will Recep Tayyip Erdogan go quietly if he is defeated after 20 years in power, first as prime minister and now all-powerful president?
“We will retire him, and send him to his corner,” said Kilicdaroglu. “He will step back quietly. No one should have any concerns about it.”
Others aren’t so sure. There are indications that the Turkish leader may be preparing to dispute the result if he loses. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has warned the vote would be “a coup attempt by the West”.
Kilicdaroglu said the combined opposition would be vigilant, trusting neither the president, “nor his Supreme Election Council nor his judges”.
“By having more than one observer in all the polling stations, we want to ensure that votes are cast correctly, securely, and the counting is done properly. We have been taking precautions to achieve this, working hard for a year and a half. “
In many ways he is the anti-Erdogan. He has recorded campaign videos at his modest kitchen table, tea towels hanging neatly in the background.
Showing he knows his onions, his rival appeared in a video with one in hand, warning prices would keep soaring if Erdogan remained in power. “Now, one kilogram of onion is 30 liras,” he said. “If he stays it will be 100 liras.”
The president’s economic policies are widely blamed for rampant inflation here. Whoever wins will inherit a broken economy and a divided nation – there’s no magic bullet for either.
On stage, flanked by other opposition leaders, Kilicdaroglu makes his trademark heart emoji for the crowds. “Everything will be beautiful,” he says. “Believe it.” And they do.
But his rally on the waterfront in Izmir came only a day after the president attracted his own large gathering, which was segregated.
Many religious conservatives will stick with him. He speaks their language. And he has shored up his support with pre-election spending including wage increases.
As polling day draws near there is an undercurrent of tension.
Many conversations are peppered with election talk – and fears – and Turkey faces a stark choice of two competing visions.
A new poll of opinion polls suggests Kilicdaroglu will win the presidency but that the president’s alliance is ahead in the race for parliament.
With the election on a knife edge, no-one can be sure if the coming weeks will pass peacefully. BBC