ANKARA — Polls opened in Turkey on Sunday morning at a defining moment for the country as millions vote to determine whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will extend his hold on power or a pro-Western coalition of opposition parties led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu will replace it.
Participation is expected to be high. absentee voting it has already made records with a 51% share in 73 countries. Inflation, economic decline and refugees are the top issues in this election, according to polls.
Almost 61 million Turkish citizens, including more than 3.4 million expatriates, have the right to vote in the elections.
The latest figures released on the eve of the election showed that Kilicdaroglu was ahead and just shy of securing more than 50% of the votes needed to avoid a runoff. Preliminary results will be available in the late afternoon local time, where polls close at 5 p.m.
The vote began amid a controversy on Twitter after the platform announced late Friday that it will block some content in Turkey ahead of Sunday’s vote. Twitter did not provide details about which accounts it has blocked, but justified the move as an effort to prevent the entire platform from being blocked in Turkey. The Erdogan government has previously blocked Twitter.
“We have informed account holders of this action in accordance with our policy. This content will remain available in the rest of the world,” Twitter said.
International observers have been deployed throughout Türkiye. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deployed a full follow-up mission of 350 members. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers and party activists have mobilized against possible electoral fraud.
Calls by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, to the Turkish government to ensure a fairer environment for the campaign process have gone unheeded.
Erdogan and officials in his government have been widely accused of enjoying the benefits of public resources under his control, as well as his control over major media outlets ahead of the election.
In its interim report released during the campaign, ODIHR also raised concerns about the frequent blocking of websites, requests to remove content, and the use of legal restrictions on freedom of expression. In a joint statement last week, watchdogs Human Rights Watch and Article 19 echoed similar sentiments, warning that the government would exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem to undermine the election result.
The six-party alliance and government critics believe the election is Turkey’s last chance to reverse democratic decline under Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.
The six-party bloc led by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is vowing to undo Erdogan’s executive presidency, which critics decry as a one-man government. He also promises to reinvigorate Turkey’s commitment to becoming a member of the European Union by carrying out the necessary democratic reforms. Earlier this week, Kilicdaroglu vowed to restore Ankara’s frayed ties to NATO and Western capitals.
Erdogan, who has comfortably weathered nearly every electoral challenge during his more than two decades in power, faces his toughest re-election bid yet amid a cost-of-living crisis and skyrocketing inflation. The earthquakes on February 6 that killed more than 50,500 people in the southeast of the country have further exacerbated the country’s deepening problems.
Erdogan’s troubled tenure
Over the course of his more than 20-year tenure, Turkey went from a country making rapid progress towards full EU membership to one in economic decline and with strained relations with the West. Following the failure of peace talks between the Erdogan government and armed Kurdish militants in 2015, Turkey has veered steadily towards authoritarianism. The talks offered a chance to end nearly 40 years of bloody conflict with Kurdish groups that claimed tens of thousands of lives.
That drift accelerated after the 2016 coup in which more than 250 people were killed in an attempt to oust Erdogan.
The failed coup, which Ankara blamed on Erdogan’s former ally, US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, paved the way for the executive presidential system, which the country narrowly approved in 2017. gulenists later spread to critics of the government and hundreds of Kurdish activists, members of civic groups and journalists remain behind bars.
Turkey’s ties with its Western allies, including NATO members, plummeted after the coup, worsening the country’s international isolation. Erdogan’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance also derailed Turkey’s ties with countries in the region. However, a redress push fueled by the worsening economy in late 2021 saw Turkey reestablish ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Ankara is also engaged in high-level talks with the Syrian government after more than a decade of hostilities.
At home, Erdogan’s time in power has also seen deep polarization along the country’s religious and ethnic divides. Increasing his belligerent rhetoric in recent weeks, he has portrayed his rivals as collaborators with outlaw groups and shadowy, mysterious centers of international power.
Kilicdaroglu’s reconciliatory approach
The soft-spoken Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat in the country’s finance ministry, positioned himself as the antithesis of Erdogan with a unifying message that spans all identities. Kilicdaroglu is Turkey’s first Alevi presidential candidate and represents a distinct and often ostracized branch of Islam.
Kilicdaroglu’s bloc includes the small leader of the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) party, Temel Karamollaoglu. The leaders of the other five opposition parties within the bloc will serve as deputy chairs along with the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara from the main opposition under Kilicdaroglu. Offshoots of the former ruling party Deva and Gelecek (Future), as well as Saadet, are running under the CHP ticket. Meanwhile, the nationalist Iyi (Good) party is running under its own name within the alliance.
Elections for Turkey’s 600-seat parliament will also take place on Sunday. The six-party alliance needs to secure 360 seats to win a referendum on ending the executive presidency. The country’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which is running in a left-wing alliance, also supports that transition.
This is a developing story and will be updated.