Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Kemal Kilicdaroglu transforms his image and adopts hardline nationalist rhetoric to woo undecided voters

Sunday 21/May/2023 - 07:40 PM
The Reference

In a surprising turn of events, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has shed his grandfatherly image and embraced a more hardline nationalist stance in an attempt to win over far-right voters. Kilicdaroglu, who trailed behind President Erdogan in the initial round of elections, has made a concerted effort to appeal to ultra-nationalists by intensifying his rhetoric on sending Syrian refugees back to their home country.

Previously known for his gestures of making heart shapes with his hands and advocating for a return to democracy and pluralism, Kilicdaroglu's recent speech showcased a significant shift in tone. He directly confronted Erdogan, accusing him of deliberately bringing in more than ten million refugees, a number significantly higher than the UN's official count of less than four million. Kilicdaroglu's attempts to court the ultra-nationalists reveal his urgent need to gain their support.

To achieve this goal, Kilicdaroglu has distanced himself from his "Mr. Nice Guy" persona. He even held a meeting with hardline leaders, aiming to secure their endorsement. However, for some of his supporters, this change in approach came too late. One voter who backed Kilicdaroglu's Republican People's Party (CHP) stated, "Turks don't like that love-heart stuff. We want someone strong."

Turkish voters are often categorized based on religious, secular, or Kurdish affiliations. However, ultra-nationalist voters defy these traditional classifications, with their primary concerns revolving around nationalist pride, opposition to Kurdish separatism, and a desire to see Syrian refugees leave the country. For them, the most important aspect is being Turkish, regardless of religious or secular beliefs.

Prior to the elections, ultra-nationalists widely shared clips from TV series like "Valley of the Wolves," depicting a strong, gun-toting vision of patriotism. Kilicdaroglu's transformation did not align with their expectations, as they sought an "alpha guy" at the helm of the state.

The election offered Turkish voters a choice between Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a pluralistic opposition leader who aimed to unite various parties behind him, and incumbent President Erdogan, known for his divisive and inflammatory rhetoric throughout his two decades in power. Erdogan's support, buoyed by a high turnout of 88 percent, was dented by economic concerns, including rising living costs and inflation. He secured just over 49 percent of the vote, his worst result yet, while Kilicdaroglu garnered 45 percent. The ultra-nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan received approximately 5 percent of the vote.

Kilicdaroglu's Alevi identity, representing a minority group adhering to a belief system related to Shia Islam, may have weakened his position. The Alevi population accounts for around 20 percent of Turkey's total, while the majority is Sunni. Some voters expressed skepticism about the opposition's decision to field an Alevi candidate, indicating that it could impact their voting decisions.

Additionally, Kilicdaroglu faced criticism from ultra-nationalists due to his alliance with the Kurdish-dominated Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP's leader, Selahattin Demirtas, is currently imprisoned on charges supporters deem political. Many Turks associate the HDP with Kurdish separatism and organizations like the PKK, classified as a terrorist group by the UK government.