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Turkey's presidential election is going to a runoff


Turkey's presidential election over the weekend was a test of democracy, and the test isn't over. The two leading candidates are headed to a runoff May 28 since no candidate won more than 50% of the vote yesterday. Incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu. During his 20 years in power. Erdogan has moved Turkey towards a more autocratic state, so a lot's on the line in this runoff. Gonul Tol directs the Turkey program at the D.C.-based Middle East Institute. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GONUL TOL: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: The lead-up to this election involved a struggling economy and February's devastating earthquake. When you were last on our program, you told us about seeing the earthquake damage and losing family in that disaster. Given all of that as a backdrop, were you surprised by these election results?

TOL: I was. And I think this tells us something very important about Turkish politics. And that is Turkey has become a deeply, deeply polarized country. And despite all the problems, as you said, the devastating earthquake, faltering economy and double-digit inflation, Erdogan could still be able to use the identity card efficiently. He framed the opposition as terrorists, as pro-LGBTQ, as against the country's Sunni Muslim values. And it seems to have worked.

SHAPIRO: And so given the direction that Erdogan has taken the country in recent years towards autocracy and religious nationalism, if he does win this runoff, what would that mean for the future of Turkey?

TOL: I think the country will degenerate further into authoritarianism, and elections will not matter. Despite all the problems in Turkey's democracy, a lot of people still have faith in the country's electoral system. And the high turnout from yesterday was a testament to that. But I think the frustration, particularly among the opposition supporters, is so strong today because they believe that change was possible through democratic means. I think this election result will deal a huge blow to that faith.

SHAPIRO: Is it a fait accompli that in this runoff, Erdogan will win? Or do you think this is a real contest?

TOL: Well, it depends. There was a third candidate in yesterday's vote. And the third candidate, who was a member of the far-right party - he captured 5% of the vote. So that means his vote is going to be critical. And both parties, both Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, will try their best to secure his support. And he already set forth some conditions, including not giving any concessions to the Kurds. And that means Kilicdaroglu had the backing of the pro-Kurdish party. And Erdogan - in his alliance, he has allied himself with an Islamist Kurdish party. So negotiations are going to be tough, but it's not a foregone conclusion. But obviously, the opposition is going into the runoff in a disadvantage position.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about what the stakes are internationally because Turkey has limited the attempts of some countries to enter NATO, has not participated in sanctions against Russia during the Ukraine invasion. So what would an Erdogan win, if that is the way this goes, mean for the region and for the West?

TOL: Well, Erdogan - we'll be seeing more of what he has done in the last few years. He's made a lot of U-turns on his foreign policy in the region. For instance, he has been trying to mend ties with regional foes like Egypt, Israel, the Saudi Arabia. So we'll see more of that. And with regards to Turkey's ties with the Western countries, Erdogan already made U-turns there, as well. He's been trying to mend ties with European countries and the West. But after the Ukraine invasion, there's a lot of frustration in Western capitals because Erdogan's policy post-Ukraine policy has tilted more towards Russia. He allowed Putin to circumvent Western sanctions. So he is likely to continue that. And that will cause more frustration in Western capitals.

SHAPIRO: That's Gonul Tol, director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute. Thank you for speaking with us.

TOL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.