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Voters in Turkey could be on track to unseat longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A potentially historic election is underway today in Turkey, an important member of NATO that straddles Europe and the Middle East. Longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants another five-year term. Not long ago, that seemed like a lock for Erdogan, who's gone from being a popular reformer to, as many would see it, a would-be authoritarian. Now an economic crisis and backlash from the government's slow response to February's earthquakes have him in a close race with a more subdued politician who promises to share power. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So you've been talking to voters there today. What's the mood like?

KENYON: Well, there's a real sense that this is an important election. The challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is expected to do well in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, and that was borne out by most of the comments I heard this morning. At one polling station, I met with 20-year-old Ozen (ph). He declined to give his last name. He was worried about retribution for talking with the media. But here's a bit of him telling me there's no way he could support Erdogan.

OZEN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: As a 20-year-old, Erdogan is the only leader he's ever known. He says none of the major problems he and his friends have been facing has been solved. So he's ready for a change. He wants Kilicdaroglu to come into office, restore the independence of Turkey's judiciary and protect democracy. Two women not far away agreed, saying it's time for spring to arrive in Turkey. Now, that's a reference to an opposition campaign slogan - elect Kilicdaroglu so spring can bloom again. And I also came across a trio of middle-aged male voters who all said they would vote for Erdogan, but none were willing to talk to a reporter.

RASCOE: So what are the big issues on people's minds?

KENYON: Well, there was widespread anger over the government's slow response to the devastating earthquake. It left 50,000 dead, millions homeless earlier this year. Add to that a struggling economy leaving consumers saddled with very high inflation, and you can see why many people are unhappy. And during Erdogan's tenure, there's been growing concern for Turkey's democracy as he amassed more and more power in his own office, weakening other institutions. But at the same time, Erdogan still has a block of loyal supporters, especially among devout Muslims and Turkey's working-class population. They haven't forgotten that he spoke up for them in ways previous civilian or military-led governments did not.

RASCOE: So what could this mean for the U.S. and other countries that have been dealing with Erdogan, who's often been contentious with the West, even though his country is in NATO?

KENYON: Yes, well, that's right. And if Erdogan wins another term, we can most likely expect those contentious relations to continue. Erdogan did finally allow Finland to join NATO but is still blocking Sweden's bid to join the alliance. He's demanding the deportation of people Turkey considers terrorists, a demand Sweden says it can't comply with. Both Sweden and Finland decided to join NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, some have called Erdogan a strong but difficult NATO member, and few would expect that to change if he's in power for another term.

RASCOE: What's our best idea of how this could play out in coming days?

KENYON: Well, that's a big question among people here. One issue is whether, if Erdogan believes he's losing his bid for another term, would he call his supporters out into the streets as he did during the failed 2016 attempted coup? But some analysts say, wait a minute, this is an election. It's not a coup. It's not clear large numbers of people would rush to the streets just because the president seems unlikely to win an election. Even so, the potential for unrest can't be ruled out. So many people will be watching the events very closely, and we could see results beginning late tonight.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you so much.

KENYON: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.