By Spy Uganda
Turks voted on Sunday in one of the most consequential elections in the country’s 100-year history, a contest that could end President Tayyip Erdogan’s imperious 20-year rule and reverberate well beyond Turkey’s borders.
The presidential vote will decide 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.
Opinion polls have given Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slight lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50% threshold needed to win outright. If neither wins more than 50% of the vote on Sunday, a runoff will be held on May 28.
Polling stations officially closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) after nine hours of voting. Reporting of results before 9 p.m. is not permitted, so the first indications of the outcome may not emerge until late evening. However, election authorities may decide to allow media to report on results earlier.
With Erdogan slightly trailing his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the elections are being intently watched in Western capitals, the Middle East, NATO and Moscow.
A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most important allies, will likely unnerve the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had troubled relations with Erdogan.
Turkey’s longest-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe’s second largest country into a global player, modernized it through megaprojects such as new bridges, hospitals and airports, and built a military industry sought by foreign states.
But his volatile economic policy of low interest rates, which set off a spiralling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters’ anger. His government’s slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to voters’ dismay.
Kilicdaroglu has pledged to set Turkey on a new course by reviving democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, empowering institutions who lost autonomy under Erdogan’s tight grasp and rebuilding frail ties with the West.
Thousands of political prisoners and activists, including high level names such as Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philantropist Osman Kavala, could be released if the opposition prevails.
“I see these elections as a choice between democracy and dictatorship,” said Ahmet Kalkan, 64, as he voted in Istanbul for Kilicdaroglu, echoing critics who fear Erdogan will govern ever more autocratically if he wins.
“I chose democracy and I hope that my country chooses democracy,” said Kalkan, a retired health sector worker.
Erdogan, 69 and a veteran of a dozen election victories, says he respects democracy and denies being a dictator.
Illustrating how the president still commands support, Mehmet Akif Kahraman, also voting in Istanbul, said Erdogan still represented the future even after two decades in power.
God willing, Turkey will be a world leader,” he said.
Voters elsewhere in the country also expressed views for and against Erdogan, a polarising figure hoping to extend his tenure as the longest-serving ruler since modern Turkey was established 100 years ago.
Erdogan, voting in Istanbul, shook the hands of election officials and spoke to a TV reporter in the polling station.
“We pray to God for a better future for our country, nation and Turkish democracy,” he said. He later travelled to Ankara, despite having said he would monitor the election from Istanbul.
A smiling Kilicdaroglu, 74, voted in Ankara and emerged to applause from the waiting crowd.
“I offer my most sincere love and respect to all my citizens who are going to the ballot box and voting. We all miss democracy so much,” he told the assembled media.
The parliamentary vote is a tight race between the People’s Alliance comprising Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) and the nationalist MHP and others, and Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance formed of six opposition parties, including his secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Voting was being monitored by a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which said it would deliver a preliminary statement on Monday on its findings.