ISTANBUL Turkish voters head to the polls on Sunday for the second time in two weeks, in one of the most decisive presidential races in the republic’s history.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at 69 led Turkey for 20 years, is seeking a new five-year term. Running against him is Kemal Kilicdaroglua 74-year-old political veteran backed by a diverse coalition of opposition parties.
In the first round, on May 14, Erdogan received the most votes with 49.5%, compared to 44.9% for Kilicdaroglu. Now the opposition is scrambling to close the gap for what will be the country’s first run-off for the presidential election.
The election comes as Turkey grapples with a protracted economic crisis and struggles to recover from the devastating earthquakes in February.
The world is watching closely as the contending views of the candidates for Turkey, an important NATO member, could have implications for security, immigration and other areas of global concern.
Concerns over the Turkish economy
In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, it’s not hard to find people with strong opinions about the race, many against the incumbent.
A resident standing outside a currency exchange, Osman, says Erdogan has had enough time in power. Like most of those interviewed for this story, Osman does not want to use his last name because he fears reprisals for speaking to foreign media about the election.
After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan eventually became president and gained sweeping executive powers after taking on what had previously been largely ceremonial work.
“I hope [Kilicdaroglu] going to win, but I doubt he will,” Osman said. “After 20 years in power, one way or another, the man [Erdogan] still won’t let go.”
Erdogan previously oversaw years of economic growth in Türkiye. But these days, critics blame him for many of the country’s deep economic problems.
Like many people in Turkey, Osman is keeping a close eye on the value of the Turkish lira, and lately the news has been depressing. When Erdogan became prime minister, the conversion rate was around 1.50 lira per US dollar. This week the lira has fallen to one new record above 20 lira per dollar.
Some economists say this was largely due to Erdogan pushing Turkey’s central bank to repeatedly cut interest rates to boost economic growth, despite warnings that could depress the currency and push the economy higher. soaring inflation.
Osman worries if Erdogan wins again the economy could collapse before he completes his term. Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policy is not sustainable, he says.
Run hard during a crisis
But despite the difficult times facing Turkish families, Erdogan has continued to rely on his base which includes religious Muslims, conservatives and workers who felt largely ignored under previous governments.
The economy is unlikely to be the deciding factor in Turkey’s election, according to Mustafa Akyol, an analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.
It’s not the economy here. It’s identity politics and culture warfare.
“It’s not the economy here, it’s identity politics and culture war,” he says, largely because of Erdogan.
Akyol says the Turkish leader’s underlying message is more like: “All good and pious Muslims should vote for [Erdogan] because he is their saviour, he revives the glory of the Ottoman Empire, he makes Turkey Muslim and great again.”
He says that Erdogan has created “a huge propaganda machine which transmits this narrative to Turkish society every day, through the media [and] through soap operas.”
Turkey’s changing view of refugees
Another concern on the minds of some voters is immigration.
Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, with nearly 4 million people fleeing Syria and other countries. But Turkey joined European nations in pulling back the welcome mat.
Dilek, 52, says after taking in most of the refugees a decade ago, it’s time for them to come home.
“Coming from my place…I didn’t see many Turks on the road,” she said. “Syrians, Afghans, Arabs, that’s all. On the right and on the left, they speak foreign languages, no one speaks Turkish,” she adds. “And it won’t get better, it will get worse.”
This message clearly reached Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan speaks of the return of a million Syrians and has launched a campaign to build housing for them in northern Syria.
For his part, Kilicdaroglu initially pledged to repatriate most, if not all, migrants within two years of his election. Then, as the race ended, he cut that timeframe to just one year.
Who should win?
Forecasts suggest a close race with Erdogan ahead. That said, the first-round results defied pre-election predictions, with some opinion polls predicting Kilicdaroglu’s victory.
Since then, candidates have hardened their tone against Kurdish refugees and militants, as they rushed to appeal to Turkey’s hardline nationalists.
Erdogan received key approval Monday of a former nationalist candidate who finished third in the May 14 elections, with 5.2% of the vote.
Then on Wednesday, Kilicdaroglu was approved by the chief Nationalist Victory Party.
Many analysts say that barring an unexpected change at the eleventh hour, Erdogan looks set to win, extending his tenure as the longest-serving leader in the history of the Turkish Republic.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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