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Turkey's president has built vast power over 20 years. But he may lose on Sunday

A poster of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, on a truck near an election poster of presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, Turkey, May 8.
Khalil Hamra
A poster of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, on a truck near an election poster of presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul, Turkey, May 8.

Updated May 14, 2023 at 2:24 PM ET

ISTANBUL — For the past two decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated his country's politics. He's been a key and contentious player on the world stage. And he's steadily tightened his grip on power in ways that have weakened the country's democracy.

Now his bid for another five-year term faces a stiff challenge, asvoters took to the polls Sunday to determine his future.

Erdogan has lost support as his country is mired in an economic crisis and his government faces criticism for its slow response to the massive damage from earthquakes in February.

Leading up to the vote, polls showed a tight race between Erdogan and his main challenger,Kemal Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo). Both are longtime politicians. But Erdogan, 69, is a combative — his supporters would say charismatic — populist. Kilicdaroglu, 74, offers a low-key style. He even records campaign videosfrom a kitchen table — a reminder of the poor economy and rising food prices.

At Erdogan rallies, crowds wave the flags of his ruling Justice and Development Party. Supporters say he projects strength for Turkey around the world. In speeches, Erdogan tries to scare people off Kilicdaroglu, alleging that he's controlled by Kurdish militants long at war with Turkish security forces. He calls the opposition a threat to the country's values and says it's "LGBT-ist" — because it seems more tolerant of minority rights.

Kilicdaroglu's rallies draw somewhat younger crowds, with his supporters saying he represents a needed change and that he offers a more moderate leadership.

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on Sunday, there will be a second round May 28. At stake is the direction of a pivotal country of 85 million people — and, some argue, the fate of its democracy.

Erdogan's active foreign policy is at times contentious with the West

From taking in millions of Syrian refugees to taking sides in civil wars in Libya and Syria, and siding with Azerbaijan against Armenia, Turkey has shown it has leverage in many of the world's hot spots in the last 20 years. It's a NATO member and helped arm Ukraine, while it also helped broker last year's deal to keep grain and fertilizer shipping out of the Black Sea, despite Russia's invasion.

But Erdogan has also defied the United States and its other NATO allies. He bought Russian missile systems, a move that prompted the U.S. to halt plans to supply Turkey with the F-35 war planes used by other NATO countries. He launched military offensives against Kurdish militias in Syria, even though they are allies with the U.S. in fighting ISIS. He slowed Finland's admission into NATO — and is still blocking Sweden's — over claims those countries shelter Kurdish militants connected to militants in Turkey.

Kilicdaroglu's campaign indicates he would try to smooth things over. If he wins, he says he would bring Turkey closer to the West politically, economically and culturally, and restart attempts to join the European Union that lost steam under Erdogan years ago. And he'd be expected to reassure world leaders concerned that Turkey is sliding from democracy to authoritarianism.

But Turkey's geographic place in the world probably requires it to maintain ties open to Iran, Russia and Syria. And both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu may increase pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown as the economy has worsened — even though the Syrians have boosted local economies.

Erdogan is battling widespread disenchantment

Starting in 2003, with stints as prime minister and president, Erdogan has ruled Turkey longer than any other leader in the Turkish Republic's history.

Early on, he was seen as an exciting reformer, champion of the working class and of devout Muslims in particular, who had been largely neglected by previous secular and military-led governments. He has improved housing and government services for many - building the kind of loyalty that could still give him a win in the vote.

But the initial economic boom Erdogan oversaw stalled years ago, and inflation has soared.

He's also become increasingly repressive — especially after a 2016 coup attempt — with his government jailing journalists, critics and thousands of perceived opponents. Tens of thousands have been purged from government jobs, suspected — often without evidence — of supporting the coup attempt. He stacked the courts with his choices, and even replaced elected mayors in some cities with his loyalists.

In February, when earthquakes devastated much of southern Turkey and killed more than 50,000, people blamed the government for its slow response and corrupt and lax building code enforcement, all of which contributed to the death toll. Many also blamed the failures squarely on Erdogan himself, for centralizing power around his presidency.

Kilicdaroglu built an alliance of groups that sometimes oppose each other

There are now two challengers to Erdogan in the election — after a third dropped out Thursday — but Kilicdaroglu has been the more prominent opposition candidate by far. Over a long career, he's built a record of steadiness. He was an accountant and has headed the country's social security administration — once winning "Bureaucrat of the Year." He also served in parliament and became head of the country's main secular party.

Now he leads a coalition called "The Table of Six," because it unites six parties that often compete against each other. It includes a nationalist party and a Kurdish party that are usually at odds. Kurds — who make up nearly 20% of the population — could be important swing voters turning his way.

The odd coalition has prompted charges from Erdogan that it wouldn't be able to govern if it won.

But the parties managed to compose a joint platform that pledges to reverse one of the biggest changes of the Erdogan era — the consolidation of power under a strong presidency. Kilicdaroglu's coalition promises more power-sharing with the parliament, new laws increasing freedom of expression and individual rights, and greater independence for the courts.

And it would grant more power to the country's electoral commission. That comes amid worries that Erdogan already has enough power — either in the government or among his backers in the streets — to overturn any election that he appears to lose.

Larry Kaplow reported from Washington, D.C., and Peter Kenyon reported from Istanbul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Kaplow
Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.