* Turkey holds municipal elections on Sunday
* Main opposition party lags Erdogan's AKP despite scandals
* CHP leader reforms secularist party to broaden appeal
By Ayla Jean Yackley
DENIZLI, Turkey, March 28 Turkey's main
opposition party has barely dented support for Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan despite months of anti-government protests, an
investigation into government graft and hours of incriminating
conversations leaked online.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People's Party
(CHP), at campaign rallies in more than 70 cities around Turkey,
has emerged as Erdogan's most dogged public critic over the
corruption scandal that has implicated the prime minister, his
family and his closest ministers.
Yet Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party remains comfortably
ahead of the centre-left, staunchly secularist CHP in the
countdown to Sunday's municipal elections.
"I am talking about efforts to legitimise corruption with an
election," Kilicdaroglu said. "This is a test of our democracy."
But his message does not much resonate with religiously
conservative Turks who remain broadly satisfied with AK Party
rule after 12 years of solid economic growth. To them, the CHP
looks like an exclusive bastion of Turkey's old secular elite.
"The CHP has failed to grasp politics is about addressing
people's needs, not just concepts of identity like secularism,"
said Bekir Agirdir, director at political-research firm Konda.
"Rather than getting to understand the people better, it
takes the same easy route that it has been treading for years."
A Konda poll showed AK Party candidates winning 46 percent
of overall votes on Sunday, a dent in the 50 percent the party
took in Turkey's last parliamentary election in 2011.
That compares with 27 percent for CHP, unchanged from 2011,
and a combined 22 percent for parliament's other two groups, the
Nationalist Movement Party and the pro-Kurdish Peace and
Democracy Party, according to the survey of 3,067 people.
Other polls show a closer race in the key battlefields of
Istanbul, where Erdogan was once mayor, and the capital Ankara.
The CHP's voter base has been largely confined to the
secular-minded middle class. It has lacked broader appeal due to
a patchy record on minority rights, support for an army that
often meddled in politics and - at least until recently - strong
opposition to religious symbols such as the Islamic headscarf.
The mild-mannered Kilicdaroglu, 65, has been quietly
reforming the CHP, sidelining hardcore "Kemalists" who espouse a
rigid version of the ideas of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of
the modern secular republic, while promoting members seen as
more closely aligned with European social democratic values.
"He has sought a balance between the new reformist wing and
the traditional Kemalists to avoid splitting the party," said
Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Bahcesehir
University who once served as a senior adviser in the CHP.
Kilicdaroglu rejects the notion that the CHP is still the
same party founded by Ataturk 90 years ago which ruled Turkey as
a single-party state unchallenged for a quarter of a century.
The party flourished again in the 1970s, but other than
short-lived stints as a junior partner in coalitions in the
1990s, it was largely banished until 2002, when it returned to
parliament in the same election that swept AK to power.
Kilicdaroglu rose to prominence as the CHP's anti-graft
campaigner, appearing on TV to brandish dossiers against
officials which led to high-profile resignations.
He took the helm of the party in 2010 after Deniz Baykal,
who controlled the CHP for 18 years, quit amid a sex scandal.
Under Kilicdaroglu, a new party charter has set quotas for
women and youth. The CHP also dropped its staunch opposition to
women wearing the headscarf in public offices and schools.
"We may have made mistakes in the past. But we're not afraid
of facing our history ... We are the fastest-changing party in
Turkey," he said in an interview this week, aboard a Cessna jet
to a rally in the southwestern town of Denizli.
Change may not come fast enough for this election, but with
the AK Party hurt by a slowing economy and the graft charges,
Kilicdaroglu wants to position the CHP for a new landscape.
Nicknamed Gandhi for a passing resemblance to the father of
Indian independence, Kilicdaroglu plays up his own humble
background to counter the CHP's gilt-edged image. Born in a
village in the eastern Kurdish province of Tunceli, he was the
only one of seven children to attend university.
"My mother and my oldest sister could not read or write. I
did not own an overcoat until I left for school. And yet I
became chairman of the CHP. How is that elitist?" he says. "Our
numbers are made up of farmers, labourers and tradesmen."
Erdogan, 60, dismisses Kilicdaroglu as an ineffectual rival,
deriding the bespectacled former civil servant as a "manager".
He accused Kilicdaroglu of colluding with his political
foes, including U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen whose
followers in Turkey held prominent positions in the police and
judiciary and are believed to have launched the graft probe,
including the wiretaps. Gulen has denied any involvement.
To warm up the crowd in Denizli, the CHP played the audio
recordings leaked in the corruption scandal, which Erdogan has
branded as an international plot to smear him.
"I believe the CHP will attract more religious voters
because they recognise the greatest sin is ill-gotten gains,"
said Kilicdaroglu, whose party includes a former mufti for mayor
of a conservative Istanbul borough among its candidates.
In Denizli, thousands gathered to listen to Kilicdaroglu
describe a more inclusive CHP.
"Whether you cover your hair or you don't, all women have a
place in my party," he said to loud cheers.
Retired factory worker Kiraz, who wears a simple scarf over
her hair as a sign of her piety, wanted to hear what the CHP
would do for the poor. She declined to give her last name.
"Covered or uncovered, I'm sure he'd take all the votes he
can get," she said with a smile.
(Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones)