ANKARA, Turkey (AP) Early results from Sunday’s Turkish national elections showed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a solid lead after nearly 20 percent of the ballot boxes were counted, according to Turkey’s state-run news agency.
Erdogan won 55% of the vote, compared to 39% for main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Anadolu Agency reported.
Opinion polls indicated that the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan ran for re-election behind a challenger for the first time.
Faik Oztrak, spokesman for the centre-left Kilicdaroglus party, warned the early returns were preliminary and said the picture was overwhelmingly positive for the opposition.
Erdogan has ruled Turkey as prime minister or president since 2003. Pre-election polls suggest he faced the toughest re-election battle in his two decades at the helm of the NATO member country, which was grappling with economic turmoil and the erosion of democratic checks and balances in recent years.
Polling stations closed late afternoon after nine hours of voting in national elections that could hand Erdogan, 69, another five-year term or see him ousted by Kilicdaroglu, who campaigned on the promise to bring Turkey back to a more democratic path.
If no candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes, the winner will be determined in a second round on May 28.
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 could continue to govern without too many restrictions. The opposition has promised to return Turkey’s governance system to parliamentary democracy if it wins the presidential and parliamentary polls.
Pre-election polls gave a slight lead to Kilicdaroglu, 74, who was the candidate of a six-party opposition alliance. He leads the center-left, pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million foreign voters, were eligible to vote in the elections, which come the year the country will mark the centenary of its establishment as a republic, a modern, secular state born on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Voter turnout in Turkey has traditionally been high, reflecting citizens’ continued belief in democratic voting.
Yet Turkey has seen freedom of speech and assembly suppressed under Erdogan, and it is wracked by a severe cost-of-living crisis that critics blame on governments’ mismanagement of the economy. The president believes that low interest rates tame inflation, contrary to orthodox economic theory, and has pressured the central bank to reflect his view.
The latest official statistics showed inflation at around 44%, down from around 86%, although independent experts believe costs are continuing to rise at a much higher rate. The price of vegetables became a campaign issue for the opposition, which used an onion as a symbol.
Turkey is also reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake which devastated 11 southern provinces in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings. The Erdogan government has been criticized for its belated and delayed response to the disaster, as well as for a lax enforcement of building codes which aggravated the losses and the misery.
Internationally, the elections were being watched closely as a test of a united opposition’s ability to unseat a leader who has concentrated nearly all state power in his hands.
In 2016 Erdogan survived an attempted military coup which he blamed on supporters of a former ally, US cleric Fethullah Gulen. The attempt sparked a full-scale crackdown on Gülen supporters and other critics, including pro-Kurdish politicians, for their alleged links to terror groups.
In this election campaign, Erdogan used state resources and his dominant position in the media to try to win over voters. He accused the opposition of colluding with terrorists, being drunks and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, which he describes as threatening traditional family values in the predominantly Muslim nation.
In a bid to garner support from citizens hard hit by inflation, he raised wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s defense and infrastructure projects. .
He also expanded the political alliance of his ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to include two nationalist parties, a small leftist party and two fringe Islamist parties.
Kilicdaroglu’s six-party National Alliance pledged to dismantle an executive presidential system narrowly voted in a 2017 referendum. The opposition alliance also vowed to restore the independence of the judiciary and central bank and reverse Erdogan’s crackdown on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding.
The alliance includes the nationalist Good Party led by former interior minister Meral Aksener, a small Islamist party and two parties that split from the AKP, one led by a former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu , and the other by a former finance minister, Ali Babacan. .
The country’s main Kurdish political party, currently the second largest opposition group in Turkey, backs Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race. Erdogan’s government in recent years has targeted party leaders with arrests and prosecutions.
At polling stations, many voters struggled to fold bulky ballot papers on which 24 political parties were vying for seats in parliament and stuff them into envelopes with the ballot for the presidency.
It is important for Turkey. It matters to the people, said Necati Aktuna, a voter in Ankara. I have been voting for 60 years. I have not seen a more important election than this.
Ahmet Yener, the head of the Supreme Electoral Council, said the voting ended without any negative incidents being reported.
We have all missed democracy so much. We all missed being together, Kilicdaroglu said after voting at a school in Ankara, where his supporters chanted President Kilicdaroglu!
From now on, you will see that spring will come to this country,” he said.
Erdogan said voting was going smoothly, including in the earthquake-affected region.
“I hope that after the countdown to the evening … there will be a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy,” Erdogan said.
Sinan Ogan, a former academic backed by an anti-immigrant nationalist party, was also a presidential candidate. Another candidate, centre-left politician Muharrem Ince, dropped out of the race on Thursday following a significant drop in his grades. But the country’s electoral commission said his withdrawal was invalid and votes for him would be counted.
Some have expressed concern over whether Erdogan would relinquish power if he loses. Erdogan said in an interview with more than a dozen Turkish broadcasters on Friday that he came to power through democracy and would act in accordance with the democratic process.
Vote in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquakewhere nearly 9 million people were eligible to vote, raised concerns.
About 3 million people left the quake area for other provinces, but only 133,000 people registered to vote in their new locations. Political parties and nongovernmental organizations planned to transport voters by bus, but it was unclear how many made the return trip.
Many quake survivors voted at makeshift polling stations erected in schoolyards.
In Diyarbakir, a predominantly Kurdish city that was hit by the earthquake, Ramazan Akcay arrived at his polling station early to cast his ballot.
God willing, it will be a democratic election, he said. May it benefit the name of our country.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Mucahit Ceylan contributed from Diyarbakir, Türkiye.