Erdogan’s rival has gone through a political makeover ahead of the elections
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Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition candidate in Turkey’s presidential election, is decidedly calm and mild-mannered in his bid to end the two-decade rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Much of his campaign messaging has been delivered from his quintessentially Turkish middle-class home and posted on Twitter, in videos that some observers have called his “kitchen diaries.”
Seated, often with tea in an “ince belli”, a Turkish teacup, he lays out his key campaign promises, announces members of his potential coalition, and sometimes just speaks candidly to the people, virtually welcoming the public into his home.
Such gestures are in stark contrast to the elitist image he and his party once had. Analysts say the desire to appeal to today’s voters has seen the presidential candidate undergo an image makeover over the years. His messages now target Turkey’s middle class and the downtrodden, the very constituency that Erdogan has always championed.
But Erdogan is now seen by his critics as being responsible for the economic turmoil the country is facing, largely due to his inability to control runaway inflation, an issue that polls have said is high on the agenda of voters who go to the ballot box on Sunday. Inflation in the country was at 43% in April, down from its peak of 85% last October.
For Erdogan’s opponents, that’s fodder for campaigns against him.
Promising to fix Turkey’s faltering economy has been a cornerstone of Kilicdaroglu’s campaign. In a video posted on Twitter on Friday, he stood in the kitchen and held up staples like bread, eggs, and yogurt, reminding viewers how much their price had soared in a year. In a separate four-second clip, he says: “Today, if you are poorer than yesterday, the only reason is Erdogan.”
Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a political communication expert who works with several politicians in Kilicdaroglu’s center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the kitchen has become a “symbol” of the candidate, “that he is living in a humble (life), and he is dealing with daily life problems of the ordinary Turkish citizens.”
“(He) wanted to show that Erdogan is the one who has forgotten about the problems of the lower income families,” she said.
His use of Twitter to reach the electorate may not have been out of choice, however. The majority of mainstream media outlets in the country are controlled by government loyalists, prompting the opposition to lean heavily into social media messaging.
When he took control of the CHP in 2010, Kilicdaroglu had an image problem, experts say. His party was staunchly secular and fiercely nationalistic. Today, however, it has unified disparate political players, is trying to court the Kurdish vote and has even welcomed defectors from Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Ak Party.
According to some of those who’ve known him, the career bureaucrat turned politician was seen as elitist and disconnected from the working class as he took control of the party, much as the CHP itself was perceived. Erdogan’s government capitalized on that.
“The government used very much the people-versus-elite distinction… in order to discredit the opposition by showing them as part of some kind of power elite,” said Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul. That created a “very hard, ossified, negative image that the opposition could not get rid of,” he told CNN.
The home videos would have been hard to imagine in the early days of his political career since his natural inclination is to keep his private life to himself, said Mehmet Karli, CHP member and longtime adviser to Kilicdaroglu.
“He has come to understand over the course of (his) … political life that private and public are very much intermeshed, especially if one is leading a movement,” he told CNN.
But the soft-spoken demeanor portrayed from his home could have downsides.
Sanver said the kitchen videos had the potential to come off as too soft for some of the tougher foreign policy issues in Turkey – including ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the United States.
Erdogan has been able to leverage personal relationships and has shown effective leadership in one of the world’s most intractable issues. Alongside the United Nations, he managed to broker a deal on grain exports between Ukraine and Russia, helping prevent a global food crisis.
“It’s one of the critiques I had,” Sanver, who has met with Kilicdaroglu throughout his campaign, told CNN. “He needs to look strong because Erdogan is also very strong.”
Delivering some addresses from his office may have helped establish a more serious persona while showing he’s still a different leader than Erdogan, she said.
In a country where ethnic and religious identity often plays a part in the public discourse and is exploited by some politicians, Kilicdaroglu has moved swiftly to deprive his opponents of ammunition.
In a video posted on Twitter from his office last month, he declared to the electorate that he belongs to the Alevi sect, a minority faith group from the east of Turkey that has for years complained about persecution in the majority Sunni Muslim country. The video was watched 36 million times.
“We will no longer talk about identities; we will talk about achievements,” he said. “We will no longer talk about divisions and differences; we will speak of our commonality and our common dreams. Will you join this campaign for this change?”