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Turkey election threatens President Erdogan's 20-year rule

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The country of Turkey held national elections today. The country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has dominated Turkish politics for the last two decades, but now he is fighting to hold on to power. Turkey has been a key NATO ally for the United States, and so there is a lot of global interest in this race. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul and joins us now. Peter, it's great to have you with us.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hello.

KHALID: So, Peter, what can you tell us about the latest vote tallies? Where are things?

KENYON: Well, it was a big vote. A large turnout - over 85%, and the race is living up to its billing as being too close to call. The biggest surprise for some was the strength of President Erdogan showing so far. Although the ruling party and the opposition disagree on the exact numbers, and the official election authority that's supposed to decide these things hasn't weighed in yet, to give you an idea, the state news agency is giving Erdogan 49% of the vote, five points more than his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, while the opposition mayor of Istanbul says, no, no, Kilicdaroglu is the one with 49% and Erdogan has 45. Now, there's a supreme election council that's supposed to settle these things, but that hasn't happened yet.

One thing to note is that, barring an unexpected change that puts one candidate over 50% of the vote, this vote won't be decisive. The race will have to go to a runoff in two weeks' time. Now, if Erdogan's total, for instance, does rise back above 50%, he would then be declared the winner immediately without any runoff.

KHALID: So, Peter, I want to ask you about two things here. If you can give us a sense of who Erdogan's main rival is and also, what are some of the issues that have dominated this race?

KENYON: Well, Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a veteran civil servant, head of a couple of bureaucratic agencies. He's also known as a very clean politician, which is a thing in Turkey, where corruption has, for a long time, been a problem. As far as the biggest issues - they really haven't played out in Erdogan's favor. He was widely criticized for his government's slow response to the devastating earthquake that left 50,000 dead, millions homeless earlier this year. In addition, Turkish consumers have been really struggling with soaring inflation. Prices of essential goods have skyrocketed. Budgets are tightly squeezed. And then there's a growing concern for Turkey's democracy. Erdogan concentrates more and more power in his own office, weakening other institutions like the judiciary.

Especially since an attempted coup in 2016, critics say Erdogan went on a massive purge, taking out military personnel, academics and others. But he still maintains a loyal base of devout Muslims and working-class people in Turkey. They haven't forgotten that he paid a lot of attention to their concerns, which had gone largely ignored for decades by previous governments. So despite all of his problems, he retains the support of a lot of people, and, as you mentioned, he has been the dominant politician for some 20 years. His critics have been predicting that he would be fading in popularity, but it appears that hasn't happened yet.

KHALID: So, Peter, what happens next at this point?

KENYON: Well, they're still counting these votes. Once that's finished and we have an official total, then, assuming that no one has gotten back over 50% - in which case they would just win flat-out - and there's no legal challenges to hold things up, the election campaign would essentially resume, and that would be heading toward another nationwide vote - that's the runoff - in two weeks' time on May 28.

KHALID: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thank you very much.

KENYON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MYLAB SONG, "LAND TRUST PICNIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.