Turkish voters chose a new president on Sunday in an election that proved to be the biggest political challenge yet to the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his 20 years as Turkey’s top politician. Having advanced in the first round, he is fighting opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a second round.
Neither candidate exceeded the 50 percent of the vote needed for a complete victory in the first round of the election, on May 14, leading to Sunday’s vote.
Since then, they have campaigned fiercely. Erdogan, 69, has staged multiple occasions a day to describe his rival as weak and incompetent. Mr Kilicdaroglu, 74, has worked to boost young voter turnout and court ultra-nationalists by taking a harder line on refugees, vowing to deport millions of them next year.
Mr. Erdogan has led Türkiye since 2003, when he became prime minister. At first, he was widely hailed as an Islamic democrat who promised to make the Muslim-majority country and NATO member a bridge between the Muslim world and the West. Recently, critics have accused him of pushing Turkey toward one-man rule and exacerbating the cost of living crisis.
After the first round, Erdogan, who has sidestepped his rivals with a fiery populist style, appears to be in a strong position to win another five-year term.
However, he faces competition from the newly united opposition who have drawn on voters’ disillusionment with his management of the economy and what they call his authoritarian tendencies. They support Mr. Kilicdaroglu, a retired civil servant who has vowed to promote Turkish democracy and improve relations with the West.
What is at stake?
The run-off election will be watched around the world for how it could shape the future of Turkey, one of the world’s 20 largest economies and a NATO ally of the United States. The result will reverberate far beyond Türkiye’s borders.
The economy is a top concern for voters. The national currency has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar since the last election in 2018. Annual inflation, which topped 80 percent at its peak last year, fell to 44 percent last month but remains stubbornly high, leaving many Turks feeling impoverished. .
Also looming over the vote were the catastrophic earthquakes in February that left more than 50,000 people dead. The government, which some criticized for its initially slow response to the natural disaster, estimated damage from the quake at $103 billion, or about 9 percent of economic output for the year. The crisis has also raised questions about whether the government bears some responsibility for a slew of shoddy construction projects in recent years that have contributed to the high death toll.
The election outcome may also affect Türkiye’s geopolitical position. The country’s relations with the United States and other NATO allies have soured as Mr. Erdogan has strengthened ties with Russia, even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and hampered the alliance’s efforts to expand.
When Mr Erdogan became prime minister, many Turks saw him as a dynamic figure who promised a bright economic future. And for many years he delivered his government. Income soared, moving millions of Turks into the middle class as new airports, roads and hospitals were built across the country. He also reduced the power of the country’s secular elite and tamed the military, which has wielded great influence since Turkey’s founding in 1923.
But in recent years, and especially since he became president in 2014, critics have accused Mr. Erdogan of using the democratic process to consolidate his powers, and of pushing the country toward authoritarianism.
All the while, Mr. Erdogan and his AKP remained a force at the ballot box, winning elections and passing referendums that allowed him to grab more power, largely with the support of voters who tend to be working-class and religiously conservative. It is the smallest Turkish city away from the coast.
But the economic turmoil started after 2013. The value of the national currency has eroded, foreign investors have fled, and recently, inflation has soared.
A skilled politician and a brilliant orator, Mr. Erdogan has earned a reputation for exploiting crises to consolidate his power. After an attempted coup in 2016, his government imprisoned tens of thousands of people accused of belonging to the religious movement previously allied with Mr. Erdogan that the government accused of masterminding a plot to overthrow him. More than 100,000 others have been fired from state jobs.
Who is the opponent?
The opposition candidate, Mr Kilicdaroglu, has built his campaign in opposition not only to Erdogan’s policies, but also to his reckless style. Mr Kilicdaroglu won 44.9% of the vote in the first round, against 49.5% for Erdogan.
In his first campaign, Mr. Kilicdaroglu made himself a steady man. But after far-right nationalist politicians fared better than expected in the first round, he adopted tougher positions, agreeing to endorse the far-right nationalist and vowing to quickly deport refugees from Syria and other countries.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and its allies also performed strongly in the parliamentary vote, helping the president signal to voters the need to support a united government in the coming weeks.
The third-place candidate in the presidential election, Sinan Oğan, endorsed Mr. Erdogan in the run-off, potentially giving the president an extra boost.
Are these elections free and fair?
Turnout in the first round of voting was very high, at over 80 percent of the 64 million eligible voters in Turkey and abroad, according to the Turkish Elections Board.
As the results of the first round trickled in, Mr. Erdogan told his supporters he was ready to face a run-off, reassuring voters that he had “always respected” the people’s decision and that he expected “the same democratic maturity from everyone.” But as in previous elections, Mr. Erdogan has used his expansive presidential powers to tilt the playing field in his favor. .
In recent months, he has raised the minimum wage, boosted salaries for civil servants, increased aid for poor families and changed regulations to allow millions of Turks to receive their state pensions early, all to shield voters from the effects of price hikes.
In December, a judge believed to be acting in support of Mr Erdogan banned the mayor of Istanbul, who was a potential presidential contender at the time, from politics after finding him guilty of insulting government officials. The mayor remained in office pending an appeal.
This would not be the first time that potential opponents of Mr. Erdogan have been sidelined.
Selahattin Demirtas, of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), ran his presidential campaign from prison in 2018. Turkish authorities have accused him of belonging to a terrorist organization. Human rights organizations described his imprisonment as politically motivated.
Turkey has fought a decades-long battle with Kurdish militants who are considered terrorists by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
The Turkish media, which is largely controlled by private companies close to Mr. Erdogan, has given Mr. Erdogan significantly more air time than other candidates while sidestepping cost-of-living issues and promoting his response to the earthquake crisis as heroic.
Polls close at 5 p.m. local time and results are expected in a few hours.