Undaunted by their underdog status, Turkish activists are trying to bridge the political divide in a grassroots campaign aimed at helping President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in Sunday’s historic election runoff.
Erdogan outperformed expectations by defeating secular challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu by almost five percentage points in the first round on May 14, falling fractionally short of an outright victory and leaving the opposition demoralised.
Pro-Kilicdaroglu activists are trying to pierce the air of inevitability surrounding Turkey’s first runoff, where few believe Erdogan will fail to extend two decades of conservative Islamic-rooted rule to 2028.
“There’s no place for despair,” opposition supporter Behice Sayat told AFP.
Holding flowers, sweet treats and envelopes, Sayat and her friends criss-cross central Istanbul every day giving out letters urging their neighbours to vote for Kilicdaroglu.
She is one of many ordinary citizens campaigning independently of Kilicdaroglu’s six-party opposition alliance, which they often criticise for a lack of action.
For Sayat, the fightback began when opposition-supporting residents in her neighbourhood created a WhatsApp group with the aim of targeting Erdogan voters — an unusual tactic in the sharply divided country.
The campaign has taken a nastier turn, with Kilicdaroglu embracing a hardline anti-refugee stance and trading barbs with Erdogan.
The president fires back by repeating accusations linking Kilicdaroglu to outlawed Kurdish militants and “infiltration” by the LGBTQ community.
“We started to look for ways to overcome the polarisation and reach people who believe in the government propaganda,” said Sayat, a 40-year-old advertising agency manager.
– ‘Last chance’ –
“My dear neighbour, they’re lying to you, and the future of our country worries us,” reads the letter written by Sayat and handed out to more than 600 people in her neighbourhood.
Similar campaign literature has flourished nationwide, targeting in particular the eight million Turks who abstained on May 14.
“It’s our last chance. We were so deflated the day after the first round. But I believe now — everyone is mobilised,” said mother-of-three Gamze.
She spent more than three hours on the telephone trying to win over a former colleague who voted for Erdogan — in vain — but said her persuasion efforts worked with those she sees in person.
Ozan Gundogdu, a journalist at the BirGun daily, is convinced these initiatives by ordinary Turks could have an unexpected effect.
He was inundated with thousands of replies to an appeal he put out on Twitter calling on opposition voters to speak with Erdogan supporters and overcome “the discourse of hate”.
“We are 25-million strong. We need to convince 1.5 million Erdogan supporters to win. When you put it like that, the scene isn’t so desperate,” he told AFP.
– ‘Fighting to save honour’ –
Gundogdu conceded the odds are stacked against the opposition because Erdogan virtually monopolises television airtime, launching daily attacks on his rivals.
“Reason leads us to be pessimistic… but people are fighting to save their honour and reflect their will at the ballot box,” he said.
“It’s not easy to reach people who only watch pro-government TV channels,” added Ali Gul of “The Young Turks”, a pro-Kilicdaroglu grassroots campaign group.
This new way of doing politics from the ground up sometimes takes artistic forms through videos and posters created by pro-opposition internet users.
Audiovisual artist Koray Onat, 32, put together a video clip for a song by young musician Paptircem that has racked up more than 1.5 million views on Twitter.
The lyrics attack government “lies” and officials prospering at the expense of young people with a backdrop of images showing a furious Erdogan, student protests put down by police and cities devastated by February’s earthquake.
“The clip made us feel like we could reach people. We’ve done what we could to win these elections,” Onat said.