Recep Tayyip Erdogan is narrowly leading a historic presidential runoff in Turkey with 70 per cent of the vote counted – as the autocrat battles to cling onto power.
Erdogan showed a lead by nine percentage points over his secular opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu the official Anadolu state news agency showed.
Turkish polling stations have now closed in a presidential runoff that could see Erdogan extend his dominant yet divisive rule into a third decade.
His advantage, however, is narrowing as more results come in, with a rival count published by the pro-opposition news agency Anka showing the two candidates locked in a dead heat.
The news agencies get their data from completed ballot box counts that are gathered by personnel on the field, and are strong in different regions, explaining some of the variation in preliminary data.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot as his wife Emine Erdogan stands next to him at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Istanbul on May 28
Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and his wife Selvi Kilicdaroglu, vote at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey today
Erdogan, 69, defied opinion polls and came out comfortably ahead with an almost five-point lead over his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the first round on May 14.
But he fell just short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a runoff, in a race with profound consequences for Turkey itself and global geopolitics.
His unexpectedly strong showing amid a deep cost of living crisis, and a win in parliamentary elections for a coalition of his conservative Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP), the nationalist MHP and others, buoyed the veteran campaigner who says a vote for him is a vote for stability.
Erdogan, who has been at Turkey’s helm for 20 years, is favoured to win a new five-year term.
The election will decide not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed after its currency plunged to one tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade, and the shape of its foreign policy, which has seen Turkey irk the West by cultivating ties with Russia and Gulf states.
More than 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots, with preliminary results expected within hours of the polls closing at 5pm local time today. The outcome could have implications far beyond Ankara with Turkey playing a key role in Nato.
The May 14 election – the first time Erdogan did not win outright – saw an 87 per cent turnout, and strong participation is expected again today.
Kilicdaroglu cobbled together a powerful coalition of Erdogan’s disenchanted former allies with secular nationalists and religious conservatives.
Turkish polling stations have now closed in a presidential runoff that could see Erdogan extend his rule into a third decade. A crowd at an Erdogan rally in Istanbul on May 27, 2023
A person voting during the second round of the presidential election in Istanbul today
Turkish Supreme Electoral Board Head Ahmet Yener (C) speaks to the press after voting ended at 5pm local time
A woman watches the news on a big screen on the day of the second round of the presidential election in Turkey today
Opposition supporters viewed it as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a leader whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.
Kilicdaroglu said after casting his vote in the first round: ‘I invite all my citizens to cast their ballot in order to get rid of this authoritarian regime and bring true freedom and democracy to this country.’
But Erdogan still managed to come within a fraction of a percentage point of winning outright in the first round.
In the first round of voting on May 14, Erdogan got 49.5 per cent support. Kilicdaroglu received 44.9 oer cent support. Nationalist candidate Sinan Ogan came third with 5.2 per cent support and was eliminated. The outcome confounded the expectations of pollsters who had put Kilicdaroglu ahead.
Should he win today, Erdogan would remain in power until 2028, and is likely to push Turkey down an increasingly authoritarian path through his muscular foreign policy and unorthodox economic governance.
After three stints as prime minister and two as president, the devout Muslim who heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is already Turkey’s longest-serving leader.
Erdogan’s success came in the face of one of the world’s worst cost-of-living crises, with almost every opinion poll predicting his defeat.
Turkish citizens arriving to cast their votes in Tekirdag today
Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, Erdogan’s political rival
Waiting outside an Istanbul polling station on Sunday, 93-year-old Ozer Atayolu told AFP he always arrived first to vote ‘because I believe in democracy and my responsibility as a citizen’.
‘I feel like a child having fun,’ the retired textile engineer said.
Some opposition supporters, however, sounded defeated as they emerged from the polls.
Bayram Ali Yuce said in one of Istanbul’s heavily anti-Erdogan neighbourhoods said: ‘Today is not like the last time. I was more excited then.
‘The outcome seems more obvious now. But I still voted.’
Kilicdaroglu tried his best to keep his disappointed supporters’ spirits up.
‘Do not despair,’ he said on Twitter after the vote. But he then vanished from view for four days before re-emerging a transformed man.
The former civil servant’s old message of social unity and democracy gave way to desk-thumping speeches about the need to immediately expel migrants and fight terrorism.
His right-wing turn was targeted at nationalists who emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary elections.
The 74-year-old had always adhered to the firm nationalist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military commander who formed both Turkey and Kilicdaroglu’s secular CHP party.
But these had played a secondary role to his promotion of socially liberal values practised by younger voters and big-city residents.
Analysts question whether Kilicdaroglu’s gamble will work.
His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party left him exposed to charges from Erdogan of working with ‘terrorists’.
The government portrays the Kurdish party as the political wing of outlawed militants.
Supporters of the Republican People’s Party waving flags at an election rally in Istanbul
Erdogan, 69, defied opinion polls and came out comfortably ahead with an almost five-point lead over his rival in the first round on May 14. Erdogan is pictured yesterday
And Kilicdaroglu’s courtship of Turkey’s hard right was hampered by the endorsement Erdogan received from an ultra-nationalist who finished third two weeks ago.
The political battles are being watched closely across world capitals because of Turkey’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East.
Erdogan’s warm ties with the West during his first decade in power were followed by a second in which he turned Turkey into NATO’s problem child.
He launched a series of military incursions into Syria that infuriated European powers and put Turkish soldiers on the opposite side of Kurdish forces supported by the United States.
His personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has also survived the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine despite Western sanctions against Moscow.
Turkey’s troubled economy is benefiting from a crucial deferment of payment on Russian energy imports, which helped Erdogan spend lavishly on campaign pledges this year.
Erdogan also delayed Finland’s membership of NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the US-led defence bloc.
The Eurasia Group consultancy said Erdogan was likely to continue trying to play world powers off each other should he win.
‘Turkey’s relations with the US and the EU will remain transactional and tense,’ it said.
Turkey’s unravelling economy will pose the most immediate test for whoever wins the vote.
The election will decide not only who leads Turkey but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed after its currency plunged to one tenth of its value against the dollar in a decade, and the shape of its foreign policy. Pictured: A man shows his ballot today
Erdogan went through a series of central bankers until he found one who started enacting his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021 – flouting the rules of conventional economics in the belief that lower rates can cure chronically high inflation.
Turkey’s currency soon entered a freefall and the annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year.
Erdogan has promised to continue these policies, despite predictions of economic peril from analysts.
Turkey burned through tens of billions of dollars while trying to support the lira from politically sensitive falls ahead of the vote.
Many analysts say that Turkey must now either hike interest rates or abandon its attempts to support the lira – two solutions that would incur economic pain.
‘The day of reckoning for Turkey’s economy and financial markets may now just be around the corner,’ analysts at Capital Economics warned.