HomeMiddle EastTurkey's knife-edge vote likely heads for runoff

Turkey’s knife-edge vote likely heads for runoff

Turkey’s historic election headed for a likely runoff on Sunday after a stormy night in which secular rivals of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disputed the vote count.

State news agency Anadolu showed the 69-year-old conservative leader with 49.86 percent and his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu with 44.38 percent.

Anadolu’s figures were based on a 90.6 percent ballot count.

One or the other of the candidates needed to pass the 50 percent threshold to prevent Turkey from having its first runoff election in the post-Ottoman republic’s 100-year history on May 28.

But the secular opposition camp headed by Kilicdaroglu cried foul.

“We are leading,” the 74-year-old tweeted.

Leading opposition figures said the government was deliberately slowing the count in districts where Kilicdaroglu enjoyed strong support.

“They are contesting the count coming out of the polls where we are way ahead,” Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu told reporters.

Imamoglu said the opposition’s internal vote count showed Kilicdaroglu getting 49 percent of the vote and Erdogan just 45.

But neither the state media tally nor the one presented by the opposition avoids the possibility of Turkey holding another presidential election in two weeks.

– Great turnout –

The election night drama reflected just how much was at stake.

Turnout was expected to reach 90 percent in what has effectively become a referendum on Turkey’s longest-serving leader and his party with Islamic roots.

Erdogan has guided the nation of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras.

Turkey has become a military and geopolitical heavyweight, playing a role in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine.

The NATO member’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East makes the election outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.

Erdogan is praised in swathes of conservative Turkey which witnessed a development boom under his rule.

More religious voters are also grateful for her decision to lift secular-era restrictions on headscarves and introduce more Islamic schools.

“My hope in God is that after the count ends tonight, the result will be good for the future of our country, for Turkish democracy,” Erdogan said after casting his ballot in Istanbul.

– ‘We all miss democracy’ –

Erdogan’s first decade of economic revival and warm relations with Europe was followed by a second full of social and political turmoil.

He responded to a failed 2016 coup attempt with sweeping purges that sent chills through Turkish society and made him an increasingly uncomfortable partner for the West.

The rise of Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance, the kind of broad-based coalition Erdogan excelled at forging throughout his career, gives foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative.

A runoff on May 28 could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate.

But he would still be dogged by Turkey’s most severe economic crisis of his time in power, and unrest over his government’s stuttering response to the February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.

“We all miss democracy,” Kilicdaroglu said after voting in the capital Ankara. “You see, God willing, spring will come to this country.”

– ‘I can’t see my future’ –

Pre-election polls indicated that Kilicdaroglu would win the youth vote, nearly 10 percent of the electorate, by a two-to-one margin.

“I can’t see my future,” 18-year-old university student Kivanc Dal told AFP in Istanbul on the eve of the vote.

Erdogan “can build as many tanks and weapons as he wants, but I don’t respect him as long as he doesn’t have a penny in his pocket.”

But kindergarten teacher Deniz Aydemir said Erdogan would get her vote because of the economic and social progress Turkey has made after half a century of corruption-ridden secular rule.

The 46-year-old also questioned how a country can be ruled by a six-party coalition, a favorite line of attack for Erdogan during the campaign.

“Yes, there are high prices… but at least there is prosperity,” he said.

Erdogan’s campaign increasingly suited his core supporters as election day approached.

He branded the opposition a “pro-LGBT” lobby group that took orders from outlaw Kurdish militants and was financed by the West.

Erdogan’s ministers and pro-government media referred darkly to a Western “political coup” plot.

The opposition began to worry that Erdogan was plotting how to stay in power at all costs.

Erdogan chafed when asked on Friday night television if he would agree to leave if he lost.

“This is a very silly question,” he said furiously. “We would do what democracy demands.”

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