Turkish voters will head to the polls on Sunday for landmark parliamentary and presidential elections that are expected to be hotly contested, likely under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reign. The greatest challenge in twenty years. The vote would either grant the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan a new five-year term or set the NATO member on what his opposition contenders say is a more democratic path.
Voting begins at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) and will end at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT). Media organizations are not allowed to report partial results until the embargo is lifted at 9pm (1800GMT). There are no exit polls. Opinion polls show the 69-year-old populist Erdogan trailing his rival for the first time in two decades in power. Opinion polls have a slight lead in favor of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the joint candidate for the United Opposition coalition.
If neither candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the presidential race will be decided in a tiebreaker on May 28. More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote in the elections, which took place on the centenary of the Turkish Republic. Voter turnout in Turkiye has historically been high, suggesting that people still believe in this type of civic engagement in a country where freedoms of speech and assembly are suppressed.
The election comes as the country is ravaged by economic turmoil that critics blame on the government’s mishandling of the economy and a severe cost of living crisis. Turkiye was also affected by a powerful earthquake that devastated 11 southern provinces in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings.
Erdogan’s government has been criticized for exacerbating the misery with a slow and insensitive response to the disaster and lax enforcement of building codes. Internationally, the election is closely watched as a test of the combined opposition’s ability to topple a leader who has concentrated almost all power in the country in his hands.
As in previous years, Erdogan has led a divisive campaign, using state resources and hegemony over the media. He accused the opposition of colluding with “terrorists”, being “alcoholics” and standing up for LGBTQ rights, which he said was a threat to traditional family values. To appeal to voters battered by inflation, he has boosted wages and pensions, subsidized electricity and gas bills, and showcased Turkey’s homegrown defense industry and infrastructure projects.
He has expanded the political alliance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with two nationalist parties, including a small leftist party and two fringe Islamic parties. Kilicdaroglu’s six-party national coalition has pledged to abolish the executive presidential system that Erdogan narrowly voted through in a 2017 referendum and return the country to a parliamentary democracy.
They pledged to establish the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, create checks and balances, and reverse the democratic regression and crackdown on free speech and dissent under Erdogan. The coalition includes the nationalist Good Party, led by former interior minister Meral Aksener, two split parties from the AKP led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former finance minister Ali Babacan, and a small Islamist party.
The country’s main Kurdish party, which backed Kilidaroglu in the presidential race, is currently Turkey’s second-largest opposition group and has been arrested and prosecuted by the government. Also running for president is Sinan Ogan, a former academic backed by an anti-immigration nationalist party. Another candidate, center-left politician Muharrem Ince, withdrew from the race on Thursday after a sharp drop in approval ratings, but the country’s electoral commission deemed his withdrawal invalid and will count his votes.
Voters will also vote to fill seats in the 600-member parliament. The opposition needs at least a majority to implement some of the democratic reforms it has promised. Polls in 11 provinces affected by the quake raised concerns about the registration of nearly 9 million voters. Some 3 million people left the quake zone for other provinces, but only 133,000 registered to vote in their new locations. Political parties and NGOs plan to transport voters by bus, but it is not clear how many will be able to return. Many earthquake survivors will vote in shipping containers that have been turned into makeshift polling stations set up on school playgrounds.
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