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Turkey's opposition leader poses a challenge to President Erdogan

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been at the center of Turkish politics for the last 20 years, but that could change after Sunday's general election. He's facing stiff competition from his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and analysts say this is the biggest test of Erdogan's grip on Turkish politics with high stakes. That's because Turkey is a very important country. It's a member of the powerful NATO alliance and a key ally of the U.S. It's also a country plagued by serious problems, including a struggling economy and a devastating earthquake in February. For more on this, we called Ruth Michaelson. She's a reporter with The Guardian based in Istanbul. And when we spoke, she explained why this election is so crucial.

RUTH MICHAELSON: This is an election where Turkish democracy is on the line, and the choice for voters at the ballot box is very stark. I was speaking to a leading member of Turkey's opposition party a couple of days ago. This is Canan Kaftancioglu of the Republican People's Party, and she spelled it out in no uncertain terms. She said, you know, I believe that this election will set an example not just for Turkey but for the whole world. And this is an example, in her words, of an authoritarian regime being taken out by the democratic process.

PFEIFFER: When we talk about democracy, of course, Erdogan has been shifting his country away from democratic ideals. Could you tell us about Erdogan's opponent's background and what his opponent's central message has been during his campaign?

MICHAELSON: Kilicdaroglu has campaigned under the slogan that spring will come again, and so he is really leaning into this idea that it is about complete change. His six-party opposition coalition are promising, fundamentally, a return to parliamentary democracy. He's someone who is quite an unlikely leader in many ways. He is a former accountant. He is a member of the country's Alevi minority, so he's from a religious minority. And that means that his campaign, his candidacy is considered boundary breaking in many ways.

PFEIFFER: During Erdogan's presidency, he shifted away from the West. He built relationships with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China. Has Kilicdaroglu said whether that's something he plans to continue?

MICHAELSON: Erdogan has both attacked Kilicdaroglu for meeting with the American ambassador to Ankara, Jeff Flake. He also said Turkey will give a message to the West with this election. Kilicdaroglu himself recently lashed out at Russia, accusing them of creating deepfakes and other forms of election interference that he says are affecting the vote. He said in a tweet that Russia should get its hands off the Turkish state. But he also said after that that if Russia was to do so, that they want to have a productive relationship if he comes to power.

When I interviewed him last weekend, what he said was that he wanted the foreign ministry to be in charge of dealing with Vladimir Putin, someone that Erdogan has built up a longstanding relationship with. Erdogan really uses Turkey's influence, his influence as a statesman on the world stage to project power at home. And we've seen how, since the war in Ukraine, he has really promoted himself and Turkey as this key bridge between the West and communication with Vladimir Putin specifically. And that is a challenge for Kilicdaroglu.

PFEIFFER: And, Ruth, just a day or two away from the election, in terms of the mood of Turkey now, what kind of things are you hearing from voters?

MICHAELSON: I mean, what we're hearing when we talk to voters, I think, that really surprised me in the past 45 days of this election campaign is how little people have shifted their positions. You don't encounter voters who have gone into this election cycle and say that since the election cycle began, that they've decided who they're going to vote for. So what we've really seen throughout this election cycle is people doubling down in their quite polarized corners of the political spectrum and often a sense that their opponents are out to attack them and an idea that each side is under threat.

PFEIFFER: That's Ruth Michaelson, a reporter with The Guardian based in Istanbul. Ruth, thank you.

MICHAELSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
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