- Opinion polls show opposition
- The results will be out by Sunday evening
- Second stage will be held on May 28 if not more than 50%
- Erdogan voted in Istanbul, rival Kilicdaroglu in Ankara
ISTANBUL, May 14 (Reuters) – Turks voted on Sunday in a contest that will end President Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule in the country’s 100-year history and reverberate far beyond Turkey’s borders.
The presidential vote will determine not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost-of-living crisis and the shape of its foreign policy.
Polls have given Erdoğan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the six-party coalition, a slight lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50% threshold needed to win. If more than 50% of the votes are not received on Sunday, the second phase of voting will be held on May 28.
The polls officially closed at 5pm (1400 GMT) after nine hours of voting. Reporting of results is not allowed before 9pm, so the first signs of results may not emerge until the evening. However, election officials may decide to allow the media to report the results in advance.
The election is being watched closely in Western capitals, the Middle East, NATO and Moscow, with Erdogan trailing his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most important allies, would worry the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration and many European and Middle Eastern leaders who have had troubled relations with Erdogan.
Turkey’s long-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe’s second-largest country into a global player, modernizing it with mega projects like new bridges, hospitals and airports and building a military industry sought after by foreign countries.
But his erratic economic policy of low interest rates, a cost-of-living crisis and inflation, made him the target of voter ire. His government’s slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to voters’ dismay.
Kilicdaroglu has pledged to set Turkey on a new course by renewing democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, empowering institutions that have lost autonomy under Erdogan’s tight grip, and rebuilding fragile ties with the West.
Thousands of political prisoners and activists could be freed if the opposition wins, including high-profile names such as Kurdish leader Selahtin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Gavala.
“I see these elections as a choice between democracy and dictatorship,” said 64-year-old Ahmet Kalkan as he voted for Klikdaroglu in Istanbul, echoing critics who fear Erdogan will rule even more autocratically if he wins.
“I chose democracy and I hope my country chooses democracy,” said Kalkan, a retired health department employee.
Erdogan, 69 and the veteran of a dozen election victories, says he values democracy and denies being a dictator.
Explaining how the president still commands support, Mehmet Akif Kahraman, a pollster in Istanbul, said Erdogan represents the future after two decades in power.
“God willing, Turkey will be a world leader,” he said.
Voters elsewhere in the country also voted for and against Erdogan, a polarizing figure in hopes of extending his tenure as the longest-reigning incumbent since the founding of modern Turkey 100 years ago.
Erdogan spoke to a television reporter at the polling station, shaking hands with election officials and voting in Istanbul.
“We pray to God for a better future for our country, nation and Turkish democracy,” he said. He later went to Ankara, though he said he was monitoring the election from Istanbul.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, rose to applause from the waiting crowd as he cast his vote in Ankara.
“I offer my most sincere love and respect to all my fellow citizens who go to the polling booth and vote. We all miss democracy dearly,” he told the assembled media.
The parliamentary vote is a tight contest between Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) and the People’s Alliance, which includes the nationalist MHP and others, and Kilikdaroğlu’s Nation coalition, which includes six opposition parties, including his secular Republican Party (CHP). Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was the founder of Turkey.
The vote is being monitored by a mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which said it would deliver an initial report on its findings on Monday.
Change or Continuity
Erdogan, a powerful orator and master campaigner, pulled out all the stops on the campaign trail. He commands fierce loyalty from devout Turks who once felt disenfranchised in secular Turkey and his political career has survived an attempted coup in 2016 and several corruption scandals.
However, Turks’ ousting of Erdogan has seen their prosperity and ability to meet basic needs decline, with inflation rising to 85% in October 2022 and a collapse in the lira currency.
Kilicdaroglu says he is seeking to return Turkey to a parliamentary form of government, away from Erdogan’s executive presidency, which was passed in a 2017 referendum. He has also promised to restore the independence of the judiciary, which critics say Erdogan has used to suppress dissent.
Erdogan has tightly controlled most of Turkey’s institutions, marginalizing liberals and critics. Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2022, noted that Erdogan’s government has set back Turkey’s human rights record for decades.
Kurdish voters, who make up 15-20% of the electorate, will play an important role, and the National Coalition is unlikely to achieve a parliamentary majority on its own.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is not part of the main opposition coalition, but remains fiercely opposed to Erdogan after a crackdown on its members in recent years.
Written by Alexandra Hudson Editing by Frances Kerry
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