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Istanbul votes for its mayor today, after a busy campaign season featuring Erdogan

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Voters head to the polls today in Turkey. They're deciding local elections there, putting officials in place for five-year terms. And the big race is for mayor of Istanbul. Turkey's president wants to reclaim it for the ruling party. But to do that, his candidate will have to unseat the sitting mayor, who won a surprise victory for the secular opposition in 2019. Here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not on the ballot Sunday, but he's been campaigning across Turkey in recent weeks. At one recent stop, Erdogan railed against critics who he said want to drag Turkey into what he called a swamp of pessimism.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Their aim is to put Turkey in a climate of insecurity and instability. They think they can drive a wedge between us and our nation by putting temporary troubles in front of our centuries-old goals.

KENYON: Nearly two dozen candidates are running, but it's seen as a contest between the current mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, from the Republican People's Party, and former cabinet minister Murat Kurum, running for the ruling Justice and Development Party. The campaigns recently set up their tents and loudspeakers in a spacious plaza near the Bosphorus Strait, and voters wandered among the booths and tents. 19-year-old Kerim Kilic (ph) says he's been working on cargo ships, but he's eager to move abroad in search of a better life. He says one problem with Istanbul is not enough infrastructure. He says it takes him forever to get anywhere.

KERIM KILIC: (Through interpreter) From our neighborhood, you can't get here except on the bus. If there were a train, like in other places, we could get around better. But just now to get here, it took us an hour.

KENYON: Standing next to him, 18-year-old Samit Aden (ph) brings up immigration, a popular topic in recent years. Aden says Syrians and other migrants are taking jobs away from people like him, and he wants the government to do something about it.

SAMIT ADEN: (Through interpreter) Everywhere we go we always see migrants. These illegals - they need to leave. They need to go back to their countries.

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KENYON: There are plenty of Imamoglu supporters in this crowd, though. 52-year-old Suzanne Evans (ph) says her main issue is with the national government in Ankara. She says Mayor Imamoglu has done pretty well for the city, considering how stingy Ankara has been with the funding.

SUZANNE EVANS: So if you don't have the same ideology, they will not give you the fund for the local government. We're from - originally from Izmir. There's another problem. I can't pay never one Izmir, and that's why they never give you the correct fund. Then they turn around and they say, well, well, he didn't do anything.

KENYON: Some recent polls have been showing Imamoglu with the lead, but analysts say Erdogan has made it a priority to win back the Istanbul mayor's seat for his party. And since he's been the dominant Turkish politician for decades, the race could be closer than some expect.

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

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