ANKARA — With less than four weeks to go before the country’s critical election on May 14, Turkey’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu garnered record attention by openly speaking about his Alevi faith — which many have seen as one of his main disadvantages in rallying support behind him.
Speaking in a video message titled “Alevi” released late Wednesday, Kilicdaroglu, leader of the country’s main opposition, said identities are assets that make people who they are. “Dear young people, dear young people who will vote for the first time in the elections, it's time we talk about a very private, very sensitive subject tonight,” he said in a fatherly tone. “I’m an Alevi … I’m a Muslim.”
Kilicdaroglu’s tweet, which included the video that has been viewed more than 73 million times as of this writing, marks the first time he has spoken about his faith since the start of the election campaign. His faith has been one of the top contentious issues in the lead-up to his presidential candidacy, as many — even including officials of the Republican People's Party (CHP)-allied Good Party — have argued that Turkey’s conservatives and Islamists would shy away from voting for an Alevi.
“Our identities are what makes us who we are. ... We cannot choose them,” said the top Erdogan contender. “But there are very important things in life that we can choose. We can choose to be a good person, to be honest, to be ethical, to be righteous, to be virtuous and fair. We can choose to lead a better life in a free and prosperous country.”
— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) April 19, 2023
Hailing from the country’s predominantly Alevi eastern province of Tunceli, Kilicdaroglu is the first Alevi to lead the CHP. The country’s sizable Alevi minority follows a distinct Muslim faith with its own houses of prayer and suffered numerous sectarian attacks, including mass killings throughout the history of both the modern Turkish Republic and Ottoman era, as they have been deemed “heretics” by Sunni Islamists.
According to Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, Kilicdaroglu’s video aimed to rob the government of important leverage. “Presidential candidate Kilicdaroglu can deny Erdogan control of the polarizing narrative without wielding the instruments available to the latter. Discussing his Alevi identity … Kilicdaroglu is pulling the rug from under Erdogan's feet,” he wrote on Twitter.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who drew the ire of Alevis several times in the past due to his inflammatory remarks — including describing an Alevi house of worship (a cemevi) as a “freak” — recently tried to court the minority through a series of pre-election pledges.
Describing the move as courageous, Middle East Institute Turkey director Gonul Tol said, “He embraces his Alevi identity, something Erdogan used against him and many thought would be a hindrance for him in the upcoming vote.”
The video has also been lauded by opposition politicians. Jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas was one of the first politicians to praise the video by retweeting it on his account. “It is possible to lead an equal, brotherly and peaceful life without discrimination in this land,” he wrote. “I wholeheartedly support this beautiful message.” Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the leading political bloc representing the country’s Kurds, announced last month that it would not field a presidential candidate, boosting the chances of Kilicdaroglu against Erdogan.
Turkish opposition presidential candidate Kilicdaroglu can deny Erdogan control of the polarizing narrative, without wielding the instruments available to the latter. Discussing his Alevi identity (considered taboo in 🇹🇷), Kilicdaroglu is pulling the rug from under Erdogan's feet https://t.co/D7SkAIds2B
— Soner Cagaptay (@SonerCagaptay) April 20, 2023
Most of Kilicdaroglu’s coalition partners also rushed to the candidate’s support. Islamist Felicity Party shared the video with the comment, “We can end this corrupted order together.”
Kilicdaroglu is running as a joint candidate of the country’s CHP-led opposition bloc of six parties, including the İYİ (Good) Party, the Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party, the Gelecek (Future) Party, the Saadet (Felicity) Party and the Democratic Party (DP).
In a video titled “Sunni,” Erdogan’s former associate, Ahmet Davutoglu and leader of the Future Party, said, “Yes, I am a Sunni. But it is my duty to defend the rights of our Alevi citizens.”
Good Party heavyweights, meanwhile, have yet to comment on the video as of this writing. While Erdogan’s ruling party largely remained silent on the video, the president’s top ally, Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, accused Kilicdaroglu of “irresponsibility” by “scratching ethnic and sectarian sensitivities in a very dangerous way.”
As polls suggest a tight race in the lead-up to the country’s fateful presidential and parliamentary elections, the country’s main rival blocs are scrambling to garner the support of undecided youths whose votes remain critical, pollsters say.
And youths were the target audience of Kilicdaroglu. “My dear young friend, as a country, we have a turning point before us and we need you to overcome this together. Don’t forget, you can pull this country out of painful sectarian disputes,” he said.