Ankara, Türkiye — Voters in Turkey returned to the polls on Sunday to decide whether the country’s longtime leader will extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade or be succeeded by a challenger who has promised to restore a more democratic society.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 20 years, is seen as the favorite for a new five-year term in the second-round runoff after narrowly falling short of an overall victory in the first round on May 14.
The divisive populist finished four percentage points ahead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of a six-party alliance and leader of Turkey’s main centre-left opposition party. Erdogan’s performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.
Speaking to reporters after casting his ballot at a school in Istanbul, Erdogan noted that it was the first presidential runoff in Turkey’s history. He also praised the high turnout in the first round and said he expected turnout to be high again on Sunday.
“I pray to God that it (the election) will be beneficial for our country and our nation,” he said.
Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo), a 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has described the runoff as a referendum on the country’s future.
“This election took place under very difficult circumstances, there was all sorts of slander and defamation,” Kilcdaroglu told reporters after casting his ballot. “But I trust people’s common sense. Democracy will come, freedom will come, people will be able to stroll the streets and freely criticize politicians.” He voted at the same time as Erdogan when local television showed the rivals’ voting on split screens.
More than 64 million people are eligible to vote. The polling stations opened at 8 a.m
There are no polling stations in Turkey, but preliminary results are expected to be available within a few hours after polling stations close at 5 p.m
The final decision could have ramifications far beyond Ankara, as Turkey sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and plays a key role in NATO.
Erdogan has transformed his country from a predominantly inward-looking nation into a geopolitical player gaining a foothold in flashpoints like Syria and Libya.
His government vetoed Sweden’s NATO entry and bought Russian missile defense systems, prompting the United States to exclude Turkey from a US-led fighter jet project. But under Erdogan, Turkey also helped negotiate a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.
Turnout was 87% in the May 14 election and another strong turnout is expected on Sunday, reflecting voters’ dedication to the polls in a country where freedom of expression and association have been repressed.
In the mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir – one of 11 regions hit by the February 6 earthquake – pensioner Mustafa Yesil, 60, said he voted for “change”.
“I am not at all satisfied with the development of this country. Let me be clear: if the current government carries on, I don’t see good things for the future,” he said. “I see it’s going to end badly – this government needs to change.”
But Mehmet Yurtas, an Erdogan supporter, disagreed.
“I think our homeland is in very good shape,” said the 57-year-old shopkeeper. “The development of our country is very good and it will continue to be good.”
If he wins, 69-year-old Erdogan could remain in power until 2028. After three terms as prime minister and two as president, Erdogan is already Turkey’s longest-serving head of state. As a devout Muslim, he heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The first half of Erdogan’s tenure included reforms that allowed the country to start talks about joining the European Union and economic growth that lifted many people out of poverty. But he later suppressed freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his hands, particularly after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was engineered by US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. The priest denies involvement.
Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role into a powerful office with a narrowly won referendum in 2017 that abolished Turkey’s parliamentary system of government. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 election that ushered in the office of executive president.
The May 14 election was the first Erdogan did not fully win.
Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for the skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis. Many also demonstrated his government’s slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.
Nonetheless, Erdogan has garnered the support of conservative voters, who remain loyal to him for raising the profile of secular-based Islam in Turkey and increasing the country’s influence in world politics.
To woo voters hard-hit by inflation, he has raised wages and pensions, subsidized electricity and gas bills while showcasing Turkey’s domestic defense industry and infrastructure projects. Also at the heart of his re-election campaign was a promise to rebuild quake-hit areas, including building 319,000 homes over the course of the year. Many see him as a source of stability.
Kilicdaroglu is a mild-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010. He fought on promises to reverse Erdogan’s democratic relapse, restore the economy by returning to more conventional politics, and improve relations with the West.
In a desperate bid to reach nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace talks with Kurdish militants if elected.
Many in Turkey view Syrian refugees, who were under Turkey’s temporary protection after fleeing war in neighboring Syria, as a burden on the country and their repatriation became a key issue in the elections.
Earlier in the week, Erdogan garnered the support of third-place candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, who received 5.2% of the vote and is out of the running. Meanwhile, a staunchly anti-immigrant party that had backed Ogan’s candidacy announced it would support Kilicdaroglu.
A defeat by Kilicdaroglu would add to Erdogan’s long list of electoral defeats and put pressure on him to step down as party leader.
Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament after a parliamentary election also held on May 14. Parliamentary elections will not be repeated on Sunday.
Erdogan’s party also dominated in the earthquake region, winning ten out of eleven provinces in an area traditionally supporting the president. In eight of those provinces, Erdogan was ahead in the race for the presidency.
As in previous elections, Erdogan used state resources and his control of the media to reach out to voters.
After the May 14 vote, international observers also pointed to the criminalization of spreading false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “undue advantage”. They also said that the high turnout shows the resilience of Turkey’s democracy.
Erdogan and pro-government media portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who had garnered support from the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as collaborating with “terrorists” and supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.
Kilicdaroglu “gets his orders from Qandil,” Erdogan has said repeatedly at recent campaign rallies, referring to the mountains of Iraq where the leadership of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is based.
“We take our orders from God and from man,” he said.
The election came as the country celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding as a republic following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Sunday also marks the 10th anniversary of the start of mass anti-government protests over plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, which have become one of the biggest challenges facing Erdogan’s government.
Erdogan’s response to the protests heralded a crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression. Eight people, including philanthropic businessman Osman Kavala, architects and a filmmaker, have been convicted for their alleged involvement in the protests.
Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Mucahit Ceylan contributed from Diyarbakir, Turkey.