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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 age 69 has led Turkey for 20 years, is seeking another five-year term. Running against him is Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 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 Kilicdaroglu’s 44.9%. Now, the opposition is scrambling to close the gap for what will be the country’s first runoff election for president.
The election comes as Turkey is grappling with a drawn-out economic crisis as well as struggling to recover from devastating earthquakes in February.
The world is closely watching, as the candidates’ opposing visions for Turkey — an important NATO member — could have implications for security, immigration and other areas of global interest.
Concerns about the Turkish economy
In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, it’s not hard to find people who have strong opinions about the race — many of them against the incumbent.
One resident standing outside a currency exchange, Osman, says Erdogan has had enough time in power. Like most people interviewed for this story, Osman doesn’t want to use his family name because he’s worried about retaliation for speaking to foreign media about the election.
After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan eventually switched to become president and amassed sweeping executive powers after assuming a job that had previously been largely ceremonial.
“I hope [Kilicdaroglu] will win, but I doubt he will,” Osman says. “After 20 years in power, somehow the man [Erdogan] will still not let go.”
Erdogan previously oversaw years of economic growth in Turkey. But these days, critics fault him for many of the country’s deep economic troubles.
Like many people in Turkey, Osman keeps a close eye on the value of the Turkish lira, and lately the news has been depressing. When Erdogan began as prime minister, the conversion rate was roughly 1.50 liras to the U.S. dollar. This week, the lira sank to a new record low beyond 20 liras to the dollar.
Some economists say this was largely due to Erdogan’s pushing the Turkish central bank to repeatedly lower interest rates to spur economic growth, despite warnings that could depress the currency and send inflation soaring.
Osman worries if Erdogan wins again, the economy could collapse before he serves out his term in office. Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policy is not sustainable, he says.
Running strong during a slump
But despite the hard times facing Turkish families, Erdogan has continued to draw support from his base — which includes religious Muslim, conservative and working-class people who felt largely ignored under previous governments.
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The economy likely won’t be the deciding factor in Turkey’s elections, 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 war,” he says, largely because of Erdogan.
Akyol says the underlying message from Turkey’s leader is more like: “All good, pious Muslims should vote for [Erdogan] because he’s their savior, he’s reviving the glory of the Ottoman Empire — he’s making Turkey Muslim and great again.”
He says Erdogan has created “a huge propaganda machine which is pumping this narrative every day to Turkish society, through media [and] through soap operas on TV.”
Turkey’s changing view of refugees
Another concern on some voters’ minds is immigration.
Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population, with close to 4 million people fleeing Syria and other countries. But Turkey has joined European nations in pulling back the welcome mat.
Fifty-two-year-old Dilek says after taking in most of the refugees a decade ago, it’s time they went home.
“Coming from home … I didn’t see many Turks on the road,” she says. “Syrians, Afghans, Arabs, that’s all. Right and left they speak in foreign languages, no one speaks Turkish,” she adds. “And this won’t get better, it will get worse.”
That message has clearly reached both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu. Erdogan speaks of returning 1 million Syrians, and has launched a campaign to build housing in northern Syria for them.
For his part, Kilicdaroglu initially pledged to repatriate most, if not all migrants within two years of being elected. Then, as the race came down to the wire, he reduced that timeline to just one year.
Who is expected to win?
Forecasts suggest a close race with Erdogan ahead. That said, the results from the first round defied pre-election predictions, when some opinion polls had projected Kilicdaroglu to win.
Since then, the candidates have hardened their tone against refugees and Kurdish militants, as they scrambled to appeal to Turkey’s hard-line nationalists.
Erdogan received a key endorsement on Monday from a nationalist former candidate who finished third in the May 14 elections, with 5.2% of the votes.
Then on Wednesday, Kilicdaroglu was endorsed by the head of the nationalist Victory Party.
Many analysts say — barring some unexpected eleventh-hour switch — Erdogan appears poised to win, extending his tenure as the longest-serving leader in the history of the Turkish Republic.