Istanbul (AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on Sunday leading a tightly-contested presidential election in early counting as he seeks a new mandate in the face of a revitalised opposition and weakening economy.
Turkish voters had for the first time cast ballots for both president and parliament in the snap polls, with Erdogan looking for a first round knockout and an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to extend his 15-year grip on power.
In the presidential poll, Erdogan has over 58 percent against his nearest rival Muharrem Ince of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) with over 27 percent, state-run Anadolu news agency said, based on a 27 percent vote count.
Erdogan needs over 50 percent to retain the presidency in the first round but these are still early results and the outcome could yet change drastically.
Trailing were Meral Aksener of the nationalist (Iyi) Good Party with over seven percent and Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with under six percent.
A count of less than 10 percent for the parliamentary election also showed that Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was well ahead and set for an overall majority. But again this can change sharply.
– ‘Protect your rights’ –
Erdoogan had faced an energetic campaign by the Ince, who has rivalled the incumbent’s charisma and crowd-pulling on the campaign trail, and a strong opposition alliance in the legislative poll.
“I hope for the best for our nation,” Ince said as he cast his ballot in his native port town of Yalova south of Istanbul, vowing to spend the night at the headquarters of Turkey’s election authority in Ankara to ensure a fair count.
Voting in Istanbul along with his son-in-law and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan said he expected turnout to be strong in an indication of “how mature democracy is in Turkey”.
The CHP said it had recorded violations in particular in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, although Erdogan insisted there was no major problem.
“I will protect your rights. All we want is a fair competition. Have no fear and don’t believe in demoralising reports,” Ince said after polls closed.
Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his Islamic-rooted ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination. But critics accuse the Turkish strongman, 64, of trampling on civil liberties and autocratic behaviour.
Although Erdogan dominated airtime on a pliant mainstream media, Ince finished his campaign with eye-catching mass rallies, including a mega meeting in Istanbul on Saturday attended by hundreds of thousands of people.
The stakes are particularly high as the new president will be the first to enjoy enhanced powers under a new constitution agreed in an April 2017 referendum strongly backed by Erdogan.
As he cast his vote, Erdogan said the changes marked a “democratic revolution”, although his opponents regard the most recent phase of his rule differently.
The president had for the last two years ruled under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of the 2016 failed coup, with tens of thousands arrested in an unprecedented crackdown which cranked up tensions with the West.
Erdogan, whose mastery of political rhetoric is acknowledged even by critics, has won a dozen elections but is now fighting against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
Inflation has zoomed well into double digits — with popular concern over sharp rises in staples like potatoes and onions — while the Turkish lira has lost some 25 percent in value against the US dollar this year.
“At each election, I come with hope. But this year I have a lot more faith, but we’ll see,” said Hulya Ozdemiral as she cast her ballot in Istanbul.
– ‘For Turkey’s future’ –
The votes of the Kurdish minority will be especially crucial in the parliamentary poll. If the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) wins seats by polling over the 10 percent minimum threshold, the AKP will struggle to keep its overall majority.
But in a situation labelled as blatant unfairness by activists, the HDP presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has campaigned from a prison cell after his November 2016 arrest on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish militants.
After casting his ballot in his jail in the northwestern region of Edirne, Demirtas wrote on Twitter: “I wish that everyone uses their vote for the sake of the future and democracy of the country.”
High security is in place across the country, with 38,480 police officers on duty in Istanbul alone. As is customary in Turkey on polling days, sales of alcohol in shops are also prohibited.