Turkish voters are considering the final decision on the next president, ideas for the future

ANKARA, Turkey — Two contrasting visions of Turkey’s future are on the ballot when voters return to the polls on Sunday for a presidential runoff that will decide between an increasingly authoritarian governor and a challenger promising to restore democracy.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a populist and polarizing leader who has ruled Turkey for 20 years, is well positioned to win after narrowly missing the first round of voting on May 14. Even when the country is reeling from sky-high inflation and the effects of February’s devastating earthquake, it was ranked first.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main secular opposition party and a six-party alliance, campaigned on a promise to undo Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. The 74-year-old former bureaucrat described the second round as a referendum on the direction of the strategically located NATO country, which is at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and has a key say in the alliance’s expansion.

“It’s an existential struggle. Turkey will either go into the darkness or into the light,” Kilicdaroglu said. “This is more than an election. It became a referendum.”

In an effort to sway nationalist voters ahead of Sunday’s runoff, the normally soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-RDHR-OH-loo) shifted gears and hardened his stance, vowing to send back millions of refugees if elected. and rejects it. any possibility of peace talks with Kurdish militants.

The social democrat previously said that he plans to repatriate the Syrians within two years, after creating the economic and security conditions that facilitate their return.

He also repeatedly called on 8 million people who stayed away from voting in the first round to vote in the alternate qualifier.

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Erdogan won 49.5 percent of the votes in the first round. Kilicdaroglu received 44.9%.

At the age of 69, Erdogan is Turkey’s longest-serving leader, having ruled the country as prime minister since 2003 and as president since 2014. If re-elected, he can remain in power until 2028.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has proven to be an indispensable and sometimes problematic NATO ally.

He vetoed Sweden’s bid to join the alliance and bought Russian missile defense systems, prompting the US to push Turkey out of the US-led fighter jet project. Nevertheless, Turkey also brokered a vital agreement with the UN that allowed Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea to parts of the world struggling with hunger.

This week, Erdogan received the support of third-place nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan, who won 5.2% of the vote. The move was seen as a boost for Erdogan, even though Ogan’s supporters are not a monolithic bloc and not all of his votes are expected to go to Erdogan.

Erdogan’s nationalist-Islamist alliance also retained power in parliament in legislative elections two weeks ago, boosting his chances of re-election as many voters are likely to want to avoid a government split.

On Wednesday, the leader of the hardline anti-migrant party that supports Ogan threw his weight behind Kilicdaroglu after they signed a protocol pledging to send back millions of migrants and refugees within a year.

Kilicdaroglu’s chances of turning the vote in his favor appear slim, but may depend on the opposition’s ability to mobilize voters who did not cast ballots in the first round.

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“You can’t say that the odds are in his favor, but technically he still has a chance,” said Serhat Guvenc, a professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

If the opposition can reach the voters who stayed at home earlier, then “it could be a different story”.

In Istanbul, Serra Ural, 45, accused Erdogan of mismanaging the economy and said he would vote for Kilicdaroglu.

He also expressed concern about women’s rights after Erdogan extended his alliance to Huda-Par, a hardline Kurdish Islamist political party with alleged ties to a group responsible for a string of gruesome killings in the 1990s. The party wants to abolish mixed-sex education, supports the criminalization of adultery and believes that women should prioritize the home over work.

“We don’t know what will happen to the women tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, what condition they will be in,” he said. “Frankly, Huda-Par scares us, especially women.”

Mehmet Nergis, 29, said he would vote for Erdogan for stability.

Erdogan “is the guarantee for a more stable future,” Nergis said. “Everybody in the world saw how far he took Turkey.”

He dismissed the country’s economic woes and trusted that Erdogan would make improvements.

Erdogan’s campaign focused on rebuilding areas in Turkey devastated by the earthquake, which flattened cities and killed more than 50,000 people. He promised to build 319,000 houses within a year.

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In parliamentary elections, Erdogan’s alliance won 10 of 11 provinces in the earthquake-hit region, despite criticism that his government’s initial disaster response was slow.

“Yes, there was a delay, but the roads were blocked,” said Yasar Sunulu, an Erdogan supporter in Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the earthquake. “We can’t complain about the state… It gave us food, bread and anything else we needed.”

He and his family are staying in a tent after their house was destroyed.

Nursel Karci, a mother of four living in the same camp, said she would also vote for Erdogan.

Erdogan “did everything I couldn’t,” he said. “She dressed my kids where I couldn’t. He fed them where I didn’t know… Not a single penny left my pocket”.

Erdogan has repeatedly portrayed Kilicdaroglu as colluding with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, after the opposition leader received the support of the country’s pro-Kurdish party.

At a rally in Istanbul, Erdogan broadcast a fake video of a PKK commander singing the opposition’s campaign song to hundreds of thousands of supporters. On Monday, Erdogan doubled down on the narrative, insisting that the PKK would give Kilicdaroglu support regardless of whether the video was “faked or not.”

“Most analysts failed to assess the impact of Erdogan’s campaign against Kilicdaroglu,” Guvenc said. “This obviously struck a chord with the average nationalist-religious electorate in Turkey.”

“Politics today is about building and maintaining a narrative that overshadows reality,” he added. “Erdogan and his people are very successful in building narratives that obscure reality.”

Source: https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/turkish-voters-weigh-final-decision-president-visions-future-99593324