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From his kitchen table, Erdogan’s challenger gets his message out

Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu uses homespun videos to appeal to voters

(Video: Twitter)
5 min

ISTANBUL — As Turkey prepares for its most competitive and consequential presidential election in years on May 14, the political opposition faces an uphill battle getting its message out. Mainstream outlets and public broadcasters afford blanket coverage to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has consolidated control over the media as he has tightened his grip on power.

As a result, the leading opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has adopted a more homespun approach, releasing videos on social media — some short, some expansive — laying out his vision for a Turkey after Erdogan, who has led the country for two decades, either as prime minister or president.

The videos have sought to present the soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu as an agreeable, healing figure: different in every way from his often combative and polarizing opponent, even if some of their positions — on foreign policy, or their promises to send millions of refugees home — are not altogether different. Some analysts have cast Kilicdaroglu as a figure similar to President Biden, who campaigned on ending the rancor and division of the Trump era, and as a bridge to a new political generation.

Kilicdaroglu’s videos have addressed the faltering economy, his alliance with a broad cast of opposition figures and the candidate’s faith, as a member of a long-marginalized religious minority. Although they lack the glitz of televised campaign ads, the videos have racked up tens of millions of views.

The videos are aimed at bypassing traditional media and reaching out to “different kinds of voters,” especially young people who are active on social media, said Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a political consultant who has worked for candidates belonging to Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP.

As Erdogan has been criticized for being out of touch with the public, Kilicdaroglu is trying to “show the voters that he is leading a very ordinary life, in an ordinary house, that he is not an elitist politician — that he can understand the problems of the people.”

With Turkey suffering through an inflationary economic crisis that has lasted for years, one of Kilicdaroglu’s most popular videos focuses on the price of onions. Like a number of his other ads, it is shot in what appears to be his modest kitchen.

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

Kilicdaroglu has assumed a professorial air in explaining his economic plans — another attempt to contrast his qualifications with those of Erdogan, whose unorthodox economic views are widely blamed for driving double-digit inflation. Erdogan has suggested that Turkey’s plummeting currency could make the country a hub for cheap labor and products, but Kilicdaroglu argued in a recent video that Turkey’s competitiveness depended on delivering “high-value-added goods.”

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

In a short video, Kilicdaroglu addressed one of his central promises: a restoration of freedom after years of increasing government repression targeting dissidents, opposition politicians, independent journalists and others. Tens of thousands of people are investigated every year for the crime of “insulting” the president, an infraction under Turkey’s criminal code that Erdogan has vigorously enforced.

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

Erdogan’s campaign was muted at first, as he toured cities in southern Turkey devastated by two powerful earthquakes in early February. With the campaign now at full throttle, he has presented himself, in speeches and campaign videos, as Turkey’s irreplaceable modernizer, delivering megaprojects that have made the country the envy of the world. A song in this video borrows from his governing party’s election slogan: “The right time, continue with the right man.”

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

Kilicdaroglu’s appeal to voters has included a discussion of his faith as a member of the Alevi, a minority Muslim sect that has faced persecution in Turkey, a majority-Sunni Muslim nation. This video was viewed more than 100 million times, sparking a rare discussion of minority rights and addressing head-on a central fear about his candidacy — that voters would avoid casting ballots for Kilicdaroglu because of long-held prejudices against Alevis.

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

Kilicdaroglu, who is 74 and a former civil servant, also has tried the daunting task of appealing to young, first-time voters — a critical bloc in a close election. They are believed to be about 10 percent of the electorate. In this TikTok video, he promises to remove a tax on video game consoles.

(Video: TikTok)

Kilicdaroglu’s signal achievement may be uniting Turkey’s long-fragmented opposition. Six opposition parties have come together to support his candidacy, a feat he highlighted in a recent video featuring several of his former rivals. The song — by a leftist musician from the Black Sea, a region considered an Erdogan stronghold — is called “Come on!”

(Video: Kemal Kilicdaroglu via Twitter)

Kilicdaroglu — for years the butt of barbs by Erdogan, who refers to him derisively in speeches as “Mr. Kemal” — still faces obstacles in reintroducing himself to voters, and skepticism remains about the united front presented by the opposition parties, which have a well-earned reputation for bickering.

If there was a criticism of the videos, it was that “you cannot only show yourself in the humble kitchen,” said Saydan Sanver, the consultant. As president, Kilicdaroglu would be required to “deal with Putin, deal with foreign affairs” and with security issues. “Turkish voters like strong leaders, too,” she said.

But the videos were a start. “He was defined by Erdogan. That was the problem of Kilicdaroglu,” she said. “I think voters know him better now.”