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Erdogan lashes out at main rival as voters prepare to go to the polls Sunday


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led his country for 20 years, and he's seeking another five-year term in elections Sunday. He was once seen as a reformer, but over the years, he's amassed more and more power and jailed critics. Now he faces public outrage over his handling of a deep economic crisis and the country's slow response to February's devastating earthquakes. NPR's Peter Kenyon traveled to Turkey's Black Sea coast, where Erdogan made a combative campaign appearance.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On stage at an arena in the city of Ordu, Erdogan attacked his main rival with an intensity that underscored how close the race appears to be. Without providing credible evidence, Erdogan tried to link opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu to pro-Kurdish militants who have been battling Turkish security forces for decades. Erdogan said Kilicdaroglu takes his orders from Qandil, a mountainous area in northern Iraq, where the group has bases.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: While we are on the path of Turkey's century together with Ordu, some people are trying to undermine Turkey, he said, adding, quote, "Where does the instruction come from? Qandil. They turn to Qandil and say, we will release all your members in prison." At another rally, Erdogan had played a video, quickly branded a deepfake, which appeared to show Kurdish militants singing the theme song of Kilicdaroglu's political party. Erdogan also attacked the opposition coalition, made up of six parties from across the political spectrum, for supporting LGBTQ rights.


ERDOGAN: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: Erdogan said the opposition doesn't support what he called the national values of our nation. He then named all six of the opposition parties in the coalition, calling each one, quote, "LGBT-ist." The crowd cheered Erdogan's applause lines and waved the flags of the ruling Justice and Development Party. But people started to leave while the president was still speaking, and those approached by a reporter didn't have much to say. Erdogan was propelled to power in part because of the aftereffects of a deadly earthquake in 1999, which killed more than 17,000 people and depressed the economy. Now he's facing widespread criticism for his own government's response to this year's devastating earthquake that killed some 50,000 people and left millions homeless. Analyst Soli Ozel at Istanbul's Kadir Has University says after leading during Turkey's economic good times, lately, Erdogan has presided over a currency crisis and soaring inflation that have Turkish families struggling to make ends meet.

SOLI OZEL: Well, after 20 years in power and quite frankly in the middle of a major economic crisis where a big chunk of the Turkish population is getting impoverished, with the total mess in fighting the aftereffects of the devastating earthquakes of 6 February this year, it is quite remarkable that Mr. Erdogan's loyal followers are still at around 35 to 40% level.

KENYON: Erdogan has also had contentious relations with the U.S. and Turkey's other NATO allies. Analyst Sibel Oktay at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs says it's also important to remember that Erdogan's standing is in large part due to the government's control of the media and silencing of opposition opinions.

SIBEL OKTAY: The limitations on free speech that have become outrageous in the last couple of years, especially after the failed coup attempt of 2016 - these are some of the sort of scare tactics of the government to curtail dissenting voices.

KENYON: That's another issue voters may be considering - Erdogan's impact on Turkey's democracy as he concentrated power in his own office. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote Sunday, a runoff is scheduled for May 28.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, in Ordu on Turkey's Black Sea coast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.