Turkish voters return to polls to decide opposing presidential visions

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish voters return to the polls on Sunday to decide whether the country’s longtime leader extends his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade or is toppled by a challenger who has vowed to restore a more democratic.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for 20 years, is favorite to win another five-year term in the second round after coming close to an outright victory in the first round on 14 may.

The divisive populist who made his country a geopolitical player finished four percentage points ahead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, candidate for a six-party alliance and leader of Turkey’s main centre-left opposition party. Erdogan’s performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.

Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo), a 74-year-old former bureaucrat, described the run-off as a referendum on the country’s future.

More than 64 million people are eligible to vote when polls open at 8 a.m.

Turkey does not have exit polls, but preliminary results are expected to arrive within hours of polls closing at 5 p.m.

The final decision could have implications far beyond Ankara as Turkey sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and plays a key role in NATO.

Turkey vetoed Sweden’s offer to join the alliance and bought Russian missile defense systems, prompting the United States to oust Turkey from a directed fighter jet project by the United States. But Erdogan’s government also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.

The May 14 election saw an 87% turnout and strong turnout is expected again on Sunday, reflecting voters’ attachment to elections in a country where freedom of speech and assembly has been suppressed.

If he wins, Erdogan, 69, could stay in power until 2028. After three terms as prime minister and two as president, the devout Muslim who leads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party , or AKP, is already Turkey’s longest-serving leader. .

The first half of Erdogan’s term included reforms that allowed the country to begin talks to join the European Union and economic growth that lifted many people out of poverty. But he then moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his hands, especially after a failed coup attempt which Turkey says was orchestrated by US Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies any involvement.

Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role into a powerful office thanks to a narrowly won referendum in 2017 that ended Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 elections that ushered in the executive presidency.

The May 14 election was the first Erdogan did not win outright.

Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for soaring inflation that has fueled a cost of living crisis. Many also blamed his government for the slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.

Yet Erdogan has retained the support of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for raising the profile of Islam in the country based on secular principles and for increasing the country’s influence in world politics.

In a bid to woo voters hard hit by inflation, he raised wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while boosting the defense industry and infrastructure projects from Turkey. He also centered his re-election campaign on a promise to rebuild disaster areas, including building 319,000 homes within the year. Many see it as a source of stability.

Kilicdaroglu is a mild-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. He campaigned on a promise to reverse Erdogan’s democratic backsliding, restore the economy by returning to more conventional policies and to improve ties. with the West.

In a frantic effort to reach out to nationalist voters in the run-off, Kilicdaroglu has vowed to send the refugees back and ruled out any peace talks with Kurdish militants if elected.

Many in Turkey see Syrian refugees who have been under Turkey’s temporary protection after fleeing war in neighboring Syria as a burden on the country, and their repatriation has become a key issue in the election.

Earlier in the week, Erdogan received the endorsement of third-place candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, who won 5.2% of the vote and is no longer in the running. Meanwhile, a staunchly anti-migrant party that had backed Ogan’s candidacy announced that it would back Kilicdaroglu.

A defeat for Kilicdaroglu would add to a long list of electoral defeats for Erdogan and pressure him to step down as party chairman.

Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament following legislative elections also held on May 14. The legislative elections will not be repeated on Sunday.

Erdogan’s party also dominated in the quake-hit region, winning 10 of 11 provinces in a region that has traditionally backed the president. Erdogan came out on top in the presidential race in eight of those provinces.

As in previous elections, Erdogan used state resources and control of the media to reach out to voters.

Following the May 14 vote, international observers also pointed to the criminalization of spreading false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “unfair advantage”. Observers also said the elections showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.

Erdogan and pro-government media described Kilicdaroglu, who had received support from the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.

Kilicdaroglu “takes his orders from Qandil,” Erdogan has said repeatedly at recent campaign rallies, a reference to the mountains of Iraq where the leadership of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is based.

“We take our orders from God and from the people,” he said.

The election was being held as the country marked the 100th anniversary of its establishment as a republic, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

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