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Opposition Mounts Challenge To Erdogan In Turkey

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 10:19 am
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Turkey's presidential election - June 24 - could not only give Recep Tayyip Erdogan another five years in office, it could also expand the powers of his already powerful office. Four opposition parties have allied to try to stop him. Challengers face a lot of obstacles, including how to campaign from a jail cell. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: These elections weren't supposed to happen until next year, but President Erdogan moved them forward in hopes of catching the opposition flatfooted and winning another term while Turkey's economy remains relatively strong. Opposition candidates are running hard but facing challenging odds.

This online video shows nationalist candidate Meral Aksener staring in disbelief as she finds she can't even get to a campaign event in the city of Gaziantep. A garbage truck is blocking the street, and nearby police don't seem in any hurry to move it. Aksener's surprise turns to anger.

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MERAL AKSENER: (Through interpreter) Shame on the mayor. Shame on the governor. I mean, a garbage truck, really?

KENYON: But her problems are mild compared with those facing the candidate from the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party. Selahattin Demirtas is young, charismatic and co-leader of the second-largest opposition party in Parliament. He's also in jail, accused by the government of supporting Kurdish militants. Forced to campaign from a cell in northern Turkey, Demirtas managed to deliver a campaign speech of sorts using his wife's phone.

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SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: His party posted a video of the call on its website.

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DEMIRTAS: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Demirtas said years of what he called anti-democratic practices had torn the country apart and turned Turkey into a society of fear. But voters following the campaign on the evening news may not know what the opposition has been saying. Erdogan's rivals say most TV channels in Turkey seem to think the incumbent is the only one running. After 16 years in power, Erdogan has a tighter grip than ever, and since a failed coup in 2016, his government has arrested tens of thousands of people in a sweeping crackdown.

He continues to draw huge crowds to his rallies, where he promises a new era for Turkey with even more powers for the president. Erdogan is heard here through an interpreter.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Are you ready to welcome the presidential system with a strong and reputable Parliament on June 24? Are you ready to have an effective and stable government? Are you ready to a new Turkey?

KENYON: Erdogan supporters answer yes to all those questions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Relaxing near a children's playground in Istanbul, 79-year-old Ekrem Canli says he's not worried about the state of Turkey's democracy, even if Erdogan wins again and racks up more than two decades in power.

EKREM CANLI: (Through interpreter) That's not that long for us. We could use another 20 years.

KENYON: In order to win re-election, Erdogan needs more than 50 percent of the votes cast, not a sure thing in this multi-candidate election. If he comes in first with less than 50 percent, Erdogan must face the second place candidate in a runoff. That's likely to be Muharrem Ince, running for the main secular opposition, CHP, the People's Republican Party. Ince is a new and younger face for the CHP, and he's confidently predicting his own first-round victory.

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MUHARREM INCE: (Through interpreter) When we started out, we thought we'd be competing in the second round. But today, I think we'll win it in the first round. I sense a deep wave in society, a spirit of change.

KENYON: Analyst Ahmet Kasim Han at Istanbul's Kadir Has University says, however this election turns out, the opposition has fielded impressive new candidates who are connecting with voters. And that could have a lasting impact on Turkish politics.

AHMET KASIM HAN: This is a game changer in its own right, and it is a game changer independent of the outcome of the election.

KENYON: The voters will get their say on June 24. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.