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Final votes are being counted in Turkey's closely watched presidential election

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Election officials say Turkey's closely watched presidential race is heading for a runoff between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The winner will define Turkey's role at a vital time for the NATO alliance.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

After two decades in power, Erdogan has been facing his toughest challenge yet. His rival has been dubbed Turkey's Gandhi, and he's promising big changes, including closer ties with the West. And none of the candidates were able to get 50% of the total votes to win outright.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Peter, was this extremely close race and lack of a clear result expected?

KENYON: Well, it was a surprise, I'd say, to some pundits and opposition party supporters, certainly. They were convinced that after 20 years in power, voters were getting tired of Erdogan. Now, this is a politician who was vilified for a sluggish response to a deadly earthquake in southern Turkey just a few months ago, and he's been presiding over an ailing economy. And yet, once again, he seems to have reached beyond his core base of supporters and attracted enough votes to apparently, at least, avoid losing if not win outright.

FADEL: OK, so Erdogan surprised those who predicted he was finished and made a strong showing despite the economic situation and people's anger over the earthquake response. How did he do it?

KENYON: Well, some of it's being attributed to Erdogan's political skills which are pretty well-known here, at least. He's a strong orator. Many voters say he projects a strong image. They like that. They say he makes world powers pay more attention to Turkey than they might otherwise. Also, there has been concern in some quarters that the opposition party that Kilicdaroglu leads has a kind of a history of losing to Erdogan's ruling party. These results certainly aren't likely to change that perception.

FADEL: Now, if Erdogan does manage to pull out a victory and win another five years in power, what are the foreign policy implications here, especially when it comes to Turkey's relationship with the U.S. and other NATO allies?

KENYON: Yes, well, exactly. Another Erdogan term would likely continue the contentious relations Turkey's had with its NATO allies and the West in general. He's resisted NATO's attempts to add Sweden and Finland to the alliance. He did eventually agree to support Finland's bid. Sweden is still waiting as Erdogan demands concessions from Stockholm that they say they can't provide. Turkey's also moved closer to Russia under Erdogan, and that does concern the West. Turkey didn't join other nations in sanctioning Moscow after it invaded Ukraine, for instance, and it refused to give up missiles it acquired from Russia. Turkey also has expanded its influence in many places - Asia, Africa, the Middle East. So the results of this election are being watched closely in a number of capitals.

FADEL: And what's next?

KENYON: They should square off again in another nationwide vote on May 28. Then the question becomes, what happens to the votes that were being cast for the two other candidates that were in the race? Meanwhile, voters are watching to see what comes next.

FADEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thank you, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.