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Backers of Kilicdaroglu aim to improve his chances in Turkey's presidential runoff

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Turkey, the main opposition party is contesting results from thousands of ballot boxes in Sunday's presidential election. Barring any unexpected changes, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu are heading for a runoff on May 28. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that Kilicdaroglu backers are scrambling to figure out how to improve his chances.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Expectations were high among opposition voters that Sunday's election would bring an end to Erdogan's two decades in power. Instead, the incumbent nearly won in the first round. Not long after, opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu released an angry video saying, I am still here. I'm still here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEMAL KILICDAROGLU: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: He also put his hand on his heart and said, you are still here, too. In Istanbul, where support for Kilicdaroglu was strong, some voters are scratching their heads. Fifty-year-old Murat Yaman (ph) said his reaction to the first round was a mix of disappointment and despair. He says maybe he'll just give up on politics for a while.

MURAT YAMAN: (Through interpreter) I don't have any hope for the future. I am not optimistic. My rent is due for a raise in August. How much more will my landlord ask? That's what I'll think about.

KENYON: He says after allowing himself to dream of a new political era for Turkey, he thinks it's time to focus on his immediate problems, most of which are financial.

YAMAN: (Through interpreter) When I go to the market tomorrow, how much will it cost me? That's all I can think of. We can't make five-year plans. We can only make monthly plans. And I have no hope.

KENYON: Analyst and political consultant Selim Koru says the opposition actually ran a fairly good campaign. Unfortunately for them, he says, they bet heavily that the economy would be the dominant issue in the race, and it wasn't.

SELIM KORU: Because the government campaigned on a heavily nationalistic platform. And it turns out that voters cared much more about that than they cared about, say, the economy.

KENYON: Forty-five-year-old Oktay Gurbuz (ph) wasn't shocked by Erdogan's strong showing. He was pleased to see that Erdogan still has so much support, as do the ruling party lawmakers who maintained their grip on Turkey's parliament. Gurbuz thinks things can only get better from here.

OKTAY GURBUZ: (Through interpreter) In the second round, our chief will win again with 58% to 60% of the vote for sure, because you can tell how strong they are from the results. They also won the majority in the parliament.

KENYON: When asked why he thought Erdogan didn't achieve a win outright on Sunday, Gurbuz shrugs and says it didn't really surprise him.

GURBUZ: (Through interpreter) Why didn't he take it? Because the opposition was in full unity. And of course, Istanbul's cost of living and rents are very high. And also, there was fatigue. After 21 years in power, it's not possible to avoid wearing down a little.

KENYON: He also says if anyone can revive Turkey's sagging economy, it's Erdogan. Many economists have said Erdogan bears a sizable share of the blame for the economy's slump. Looking ahead to the May 28 runoff, analyst Selim Koru says the opposition's goal has to be damage control because Erdogan's goal is not just a win now, but to have a big majority to make it easier to enact his agenda.

KORU: He wants a comfortable supermajority, something akin to what Putin has in Russia. So the opposition's main goal has to be about denying him too big of a majority.

KENYON: But the bottom line for many here is that absent a very different vote in Round 2, Erdogan looks to be in the driver's seat in his bid for another term.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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