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How far-right nationalism campaigns in Turkey have impacted its presidential election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Voters in Turkey will cast ballots again in just over a week for president after neither the incumbent president Erdogan nor his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, secured enough votes for a win in the first round. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that conservative nationalist rhetoric has played a significant role in the campaign speeches of both candidates as the vote approaches.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: President Erdogan's stump speeches have seized on anti-U.S. and EU themes, as well as vowing to deport a million Syrian migrants back to their country. At a rally last month, Erdogan railed against American Ambassador Jeff Flake after Flake met with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, accusing Washington of taking sides. During a visit to a youth center affiliated with ultranationalist groups, Erdogan sought to tie his rival to President Joe Biden. Instead of calling him Bey Kemal, a respectful form of address in Turkish, Erdogan called him Bye-Bye Kemal.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Biden talks from there, and Biden's ambassador here does what? Visits Bye-Bye Kemal. Especially for America, we need to teach them a lesson.

KENYON: Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu has also gone nationalist, recently vowing to deport 10 million Syrian and Afghan migrants. Kilicdaroglu has also responded to Erdogan's attacks in kind. During a speech to party faithful in the capital, Ankara, he blasted the president for his early efforts to end Turkey's struggle against pro-Kurdish militants. Turkey has fought for decades against groups designated as terrorists by Turkey, the EU and U.S.

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KEMAL KILICDAROGLU: (Through interpreter) Erdogan, aren't you the one who repeatedly sat at the table with terrorist organizations, who negotiated behind closed doors and secrecy from our nation? How dare you question our love for our homeland? How dare you slander us?

KENYON: But after the first round, he also seemed to recognize that he had strayed from the moderate secular base of the party he leads.

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KILICDAROGLU: (Through interpreter) My dear citizens, let me state frankly that we have received your messages. However, we have millions more patriotic people to reach to bring justice, prosperity and peace to our beautiful country.

KENYON: Observers say for Erdogan, this hard-line nationalist posture is simply a return to his party's origins. Political consultant Selim Koru at the Economic and Policy Research Foundation of Turkey says although Erdogan came into office as a reformer, his party not only has roots in political Islam; it began life as a fierce proponent of deeply conservative views.

SELIM KORU: Listen, people talk about ultranationalist or the far right in Turkey. If you actually look at the AK Party as a whole, its origins are in the Turkish far right. They only sort of moderated in the 2000s, and they reverted back to their original position.

KENYON: Nathan Kohlenberg at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. says the nationalist tone isn't only on the rise in Turkey. He points to Poland, another U.S. ally, where the ruling party has also made demonizing immigrants, the LGBTQ community and international organizations a staple of its political discourse.

NATHAN KOHLENBERG: And so I actually think there are a lot of commonalities that you can see between the rise of authoritarianism in both countries.

KENYON: The opposition in Turkey, meanwhile, has a big task ahead, trying to restore enthusiasm to a voter base disillusioned by Kilicdaroglu's weak showing in round one.

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

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