Main opposition challenger for the Turkish presidency Kemal Kilicdaroglu has caused a viral sensation on Twitter, attracting 105.3mn views on the social media platform with a video in which he speaks openly about his Alevi faith.
Director of Istanbul think tank Edam Org, former diplomat Sinan Ulgen, said on Twitter: “We are witnessing a phenomenon.”
He added that “the Kilicdaroglu video now ranks the most viewed video on Twitter globally since 2022 surpassing the previously top ranked #Messi video which clocked 25 M views.”
The soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu—nicknamed Gandhi Kemal for his passing physical resemblance to the former Indian civil rights leader—will attempt to dislodge polarising strongman Turkish leader of two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey’s upcoming May 14 election.
Alevis in Turkey are thought to constitute around a fifth of the 85mn-strong population, but many feel they must hide their identity in the Sunni majority country. Before Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), was nominated as the presidential candidate of the six-party Nation Alliance, some observers objected to his candidacy on the grounds that Sunni Muslims, some of whom see Alevis as heretics, would never vote for a person of Alevi faith. Now some commentators are arguing that the success of the video could mark a critical turn in Turkish politics, especially as it might appeal to many of the young generation in the country who will make up a vital group of 5mn first-time voters on polling day.
Speaking in the video message titled “Alevi”, released late on April 19, Kilicdaroglu 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, adding: “I’m an Alevi … I’m a Muslim.”
“I am an Alevi, a sincere Muslim who grew up with faith in God, Prophet Muhammed and Ali,” Kilicdaroglu went on. “Identities makes us who we are. We must of course uphold them with pride. We cannot choose our identities, we are born with them … but there are more important things we can choose in life.
“We can choose to be good people, to be honest and ethical, to have a conscience, to be virtuous and just. We can choose to live a better life, in a free and prosperous country. Our choices can transform society rapidly.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, said on Twitter that 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.”
Describing 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu’s move as courageous, Middle East Institute Turkey director Gonul Tol responded: “He embraces his Alevi identity, something Erdogan used against him and many thought would be a hindrance for him in the upcoming vote.”
Erdogan, 69, speaking at a campaign event in the earthquake hit southeastern province of Kahramanmaras on April 22, accused Kilicdaroglu of exploiting his sectarian identity.
“In order to hide their dark deals, they are launching a debate on ethnic identity, on sectarianism out of nowhere. Nobody never in this country asks other people’s origins, their sects,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by pro-government daily Sabah.
Erdogan, however, has in recent weeks stepped up his attacks on Kilicdaroglu as someone who cooperates with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group designated by Turkey as terrorist. The escalation came after the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is the third largest party in Turkey’s parliament, indicated implicit support for Kilicdaroglu’s bid to win the presidency by declaring that it would not nominate its own presidential candidate. Both Kilicdaroglu and the HDP deny having any links to the PKK.
Jailed former co-leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas—whom Erdogan refuse to free despite European human rights court rulings that he is a political prisoner—also lauded Kilicdaroglu’s video, 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.”
Veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk said in an interview published by T24 on April 23. “I congratulate him [Kilicdaroglu].”
He added: “I saw that he has reached a point where he touches the realities in Turkey. I wish all those things had happened before, we had opened discussions on those issues before.
“I hope he will continue this attitude he displays today when they take over the government. Because the people of Turkey need a system, need a government that brings people together, unifies them, respects their values.”
Kilicdaroglu hails from Turkey’s predominantly Alevi eastern province of Tunceli. The Alevi minority follows a distinct Muslim faith with its own houses of prayer. It has suffered numerous sectarian attacks, including mass killings throughout the history of both the modern Turkish Republic and Ottoman era.
Kilicdaroglu is running as the joint candidate of the country’s CHP-led Nation Alliance opposition bloc, sometimes referred to as the Table of Six. It groups the CHP, the IYI (Good) Party, the Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party, the Gelecek (Future) Party, the Saadet (Felicity) Party and the Democratic Party (DP).