Turks voted on Sunday in a presidential runoff that could see Tayyip Erdogan extend his rule into a third decade and persist with Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian path, muscular foreign policy and unorthodox economic governance.
Erdogan, 69, defied opinion polls and came out ahead with an almost five-point lead over his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the first round on May 14. But he fell just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, in a race with profound consequences for Turkey itself and global geopolitics.
His unexpectedly strong showing amid a deep cost of living crisis, and a win in parliamentary elections for a coalition of his conservative Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP), the nationalist MHP and others, buoyed the veteran campaigner who says a vote for him is a vote for stability.
Polls closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) after opening at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT). The outcome is expected to start becoming clear by early evening local time. Polling stations were reportedly quieter in many places than two weeks ago, when turnout was 89%.
The election 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 after its currency plunged to one-tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade, and the shape of its foreign policy, which has seen Turkey anger the West by cultivating ties with Russia and Gulf states.
Erdogan supporters gathered at a school near his home on the Asian side of Istanbul where he voted around midday (0900 GMT), before shaking hands and talking with the crowd.
“With God’s permission he will win. The country has many problems but if anyone can solve them, he can,” said Nuran, who came to vote with her three-year-old daughter.
In Ankara, 32-year-old Gulcan Demiroz said she hoped the vote would bring change and that her friends would otherwise go abroad, as she was considering doing, for a better life.
“This country deserves better. We need a collective of minds, not a powerful, cold, distant man who rules single handedly,” said Gulcan, who works in the textile industry, after voting for Kilicdaroglu.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, voted in Ankara. He is the candidate of a six-party opposition alliance, and leads the Republican People’s Party (CHP) created by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His camp has struggled to regain momentum after trailing Erdogan in the first round.
The initial election showed larger-than-expected support for nationalism – a powerful force in Turkish politics which has been hardened by years of hostilities with Kurdish militants, an attempted coup in 2016 and the influx of millions of refugees from Syria since war began there in 2011.
Turkey is the world’s largest refugee host, with some 5 million migrants, of whom 3.3 million are Syrians, according to Interior Ministry data.
Third-place presidential candidate and hardline nationalist Sinan Ogan said he endorsed Erdogan based on a principle of “non-stop struggle (against) terrorism”, referring to pro-Kurdish groups. He achieved 5.17% of the vote.
Umit Ozdag, leader of the anti-immigrant Victory Party (ZP), announced a deal declaring ZP’s support for Kilicdaroglu, after the CHP leader said he would repatriate immigrants. The ZP won 2.2% of votes in the parliamentary election.
A survey by pollster Konda put support for Erdogan at 52.7% and Kilicdaroglu at 47.3% after distributing undecided voters. The survey was carried out on May 20-21, before Ogan and Ozdag revealed their endorsements.
Another key is how Turkey’s Kurds, at about a fifth of the population, will vote.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party endorsed Kilicdaroglu in the first round but, after his move to win nationalist votes, it did not explicitly name him and just urged voters to reject Erdogan’s “one-man regime”.
Turkey’s president commands fierce loyalty from pious Turks who once felt disenfranchised in secular Turkey and his political career has survived the failed coup and corruption scandals.
“Turkey has a longstanding democratic tradition and a longstanding nationalist tradition, and right now it’s clearly the nationalist one that’s winning out,” said Nicholas Danforth, Turkey historian and non-resident fellow at think tank ELIAMEP. “Erdogan has fused religious and national pride, offering voters an aggressive anti-elitism.”
“People know who he is and what his vision for the country is, and it seems a lot of them approve.”
Erdogan has taken control of most of Turkey’s institutions and sidelined liberals and critics. Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2022, said Erdogan’s government has set back Turkey’s human rights record by decades.
The domination of the country’s media by pro-government TV stations and newspapers gave Erdogan a major advantage over his opponent in the election campaign, with his frequent speeches all covered live while his rival received limited coverage.
In February, earthquakes killed more than 50,000 people and devastated southern Turkey and this had been expected to add to Erdogan’s challenge in the elections. However, his AKP remained dominant across that region on May 14.
But if Erdogan goes, it will be largely because Turks have seen their prosperity, equality and ability to meet basic needs decline, with inflation topping 85% last October.
Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant, has pledged to roll back much of Erdogan’s changes to Turkish domestic, foreign and economic policies.
He would also revert to the parliamentary system of governance, from Erdogan’s executive presidential system, narrowly passed in a referendum in 2017.
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