ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey and much of the world waited Sunday to see if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan survived the toughest electoral challenge in his two decades. He leads the NATO member country, which is grappling with economic turmoil Democratic checks and balances have eroded in recent years.
Polls closed in the late afternoon, nine hours after voting in the national election Erdogan, 69, could be given another five-year term or be ousted by the leader of the energetic opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has campaigned on a promise to return Turkey to a more democratic path.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the winner will be decided in a run-off on May 28. Polls indicated that an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan entered his bid for re-election, trailing his rival for the first time.
Erdogan has ruled Türkiye as prime minister or president since 2003.
By electoral custom in Turkey, news organizations were barred from publishing partial results until the ban was lifted at 9pm (1800GMT). Opinion polls are not conducted.
Voters also elected lawmakers to fill Turkey’s 600-seat parliament, which has lost much of its legislative power under Erdogan’s executive presidency. If his political alliance wins, Erdogan can continue to rule without many restrictions. The opposition promised to return Turkey’s system of government to a parliamentary democracy if it won both the presidential and parliamentary elections.
Pre-election polls gave Kilicdaroglu a slight lead, 74, is backed by the opposition’s six-party coalition. He leads the pro-secular centre-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote in the election, which comes in the year the country celebrates its centenary as a republic – a modern, secular state born on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. .
Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, reflecting citizens’ continued belief in democratic voting.
However, Turkey has witnessed a crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly under Erdogan, and is suffering from an acute cost-of-living crisis that critics blame on the government’s mismanagement of the economy. The president believes that low interest rates tame inflation, contrary to traditional economic theory, and put pressure on the central bank to reverse his view.
The latest official statistics showed inflation at around 44%, down from around 86%, though independent experts believe costs continue to rise at a much higher rate. The price of vegetables became an election issue for the opposition, which used onions as a symbol.
Türkiye also suffers from the effects of a strong earthquake that wreaked havoc in 11 southern counties in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings. Erdogan’s government has been criticized for its late and stalled response to the disaster, as well as lax enforcement of building codes. Which exacerbated the injuries and misery.
Internationally, the election was closely watched as a test of a united opposition’s ability to unseat a leader who had concentrated almost all state power in his hands.
In 2016, Erdogan survived an attempted military coup that he blamed on followers of a former ally, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. The attempt led to a widespread crackdown on Gulen supporters and other critics, including pro-Kurdish politicians, over alleged links to terrorist groups.
In this election campaign, Erdoğan used state resources and his domineering attitude over the media to try to entice voters. He accused the opposition of collusion with “terrorists”, “drunkards”, and upholding LGBT rights, which he described as threatening traditional family values in the Muslim-majority country.
In an effort to secure support from citizens hard hit by inflation, he increased wages, pensions, and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while offering Turkey domestic defense and infrastructure projects.
He also expanded the political alliance of his ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, to include two nationalist parties, a small leftist party, and two fringe Islamist parties.
The six-party Nation Alliance led by Kilicdaroglu has vowed to dismantle an executive presidential system that was narrowly voted on in a 2017 referendum.. The opposition alliance also promised to restore the independence of the judiciary and the central bank and to reverse the crackdown on freedom of expression and other forms of democratic backsliding under Erdogan.
The coalition includes the Nationalist Good Party led by former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, a small Islamist party, and two parties that split from the Justice and Development Party, one led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the other led by former Finance Minister Ali Babacan. .
The country’s main Kurdish political party, currently the second largest opposition grouping in Turkey, supports Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race. In recent years, the Erdoğan government has targeted party leaders with arrests and lawsuits.
At the polling stations, many voters struggled trying to fold the bulky ballot papers — featuring 24 political parties vying for seats in parliament — and put them in envelopes alongside their presidential ballot.
“It is important for Turkey. It is important for the people,” said Necati Aktuna, a voter in Ankara. “I’ve been voting for the last 60 years. I’ve never seen an election more important than this one.”
Ahmet Yener, head of the Supreme Election Council, said the voting ended without any “negative” incidents being reported.
We miss democracy so much. Kilicdaroglu said after the vote at a school in Ankara, where his supporters chanted “President Kilicdaroglu!”
“From now on,” he said, “you will see that spring will come to this country.”
Erdogan said voting was taking place “without any problems”, including in the quake-affected area.
“I hope that after the evening is over, there will be a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy,” Erdogan said.
Sinan Ogan, a former academic who has the support of an anti-immigration nationalist party, also ran for president. Another candidate, centre-left politician Muharrem Ince, dropped out of the race on Thursday After a significant drop in his ratings. But the country’s election board said his withdrawal was invalid and the votes would be counted in his favour.
Some have expressed concerns about whether Erdogan would cede power if he lost. Erdogan said in an interview with more than a dozen Turkish radio stations on Friday that he came to power through democracy and will work in line with the democratic process.
Polling in 11 provinces affected by the earthquakewhere nearly 9 million people were eligible to vote, raised concerns.
About 3 million people left the quake zone for other provinces, but only 133,000 people registered to vote in their new locations. Political parties and NGOs planned to bus in voters, but it was not clear how many returned.
Many of the earthquake survivors cast their ballots at makeshift polling stations set up in schoolyards.
In Diyarbakir, the quake-hit Kurdish-majority city, Ramazan Akay arrived early at his polling station to cast his ballot.
“God willing, it will be a democratic election,” he said. “May it be useful in the name of our country.”
Belgensoy reported from Istanbul. Makahit Ceylan contributed from Diyarbakir, Türkiye.