ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey is voting Sunday in landmark parliamentary and presidential elections that are expected to be tightly contested and could be the biggest challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has faced in his two decades in power.
The vote will either grant the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan a new five-year term in office or set the NATO member country on what his opposition contender calls a more democratic path.
Polling began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). Media organizations are barred from reporting partial results until an embargo is lifted at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT). There are no exit polls.
For the first time in his 20 years in office, opinion polls indicate that the populist Erdogan, 69, is entering a race trailing behind an opponent. Opinion surveys have given a slight lead to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the joint candidate of a united opposition alliance. If neither candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the presidential race will be determined in a run-off on May 28.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, are eligible to vote in the elections, which are taking place the year Turkey marks the centenary of the establishment of the republic. Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, showing continued belief in this type of civic participation in a country where freedom of expression and assembly have been suppressed.
The elections come as the country is wracked by economic turmoil that critics blame on the government’s mishandling of the economy and a steep cost-of-living crisis.
Turkey is also reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake that caused devastation in 11 southern provinces in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings. Erdogan’s government has been criticized for its delayed and stunted response to the disaster as well as the lax implementation of building codes that exacerbated the misery.
Internationally, the elections are being watched closely as a test of a united opposition’s ability to dislodge a leader who has concentrated nearly all powers of the state in his hands.
Erdogan has led a divisive election campaign, using state resources and his domineering position over media, as he has done previously. He has accused the opposition of colluding with “terrorists,” of being “drunkards” and of upholding LGBTQ rights which he says are a threat to traditional family values.
In a bid to woo voters hit hard by inflation, he has increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defense industry and infrastructure projects.
He has extended the political alliance of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, with two nationalist parties to include a small leftist party and two marginal Islamist parties.
Kilicdaroglu’s six-party Nation Alliance, has promised to dismantle an executive presidential system narrowly voted in by a 2017 referendum and return the country to a parliamentary democracy. They have promised to establish the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, institute checks and balances and reverse the democratic backsliding and crackdowns on free speech and dissent under Erdogan.
The alliance includes the nationalist Good Party led by former interior minister Meral Aksener, and two parties that splintered from the AKP and are led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former finance minister Ali Babacan, as well as a small Islamist party.
The country’s main Kurdish political party, currently Turkey’s second largest opposition grouping that the government has targeted with arrests and lawsuits, is supporting Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race.
Large crowds gathered outside the polling stations where Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu cast their votes.
“We have all missed democracy so much. We all missed being together,” Kilicdaroglu said after voting at a school in Ankara, where his supporters chanted “President Kilicdaroglu!”
“From now on, you will see that spring will come to this country,” he said.
Erdogan said voting was underway “without any problems,” including in the earthquake-affected region where people were voting “with great enthusiasm and love.”
“It is my hope that after the evening’s count … there will be a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy,” he said.
Also running for president is Sinan Ogan, a former academic who has the backing of an anti-immigrant nationalist party. One other candidate, the center-left politician Muharrem Ince dropped out of the race on Thursday following a significant drop in his ratings but his withdrawal was considered invalid by the country’s electoral board and votes for him will be counted.
Voters will also be casting ballots to fill seats in the 600-member parliament. The opposition would need at least a majority to be able to enact some of the democratic reforms it has promised.
Some have expressed concerns over whether Erdogan would cede power if he lost. Erdogan, however, said in an interview with more than a dozen Turkish broadcasters on Friday that he came to power through democracy and would act in line with the democratic process.
Aksener, the Good Party leader, appealed for respect after she cast her vote.
“Now we are moving to the stage where we must all respect the results that emerge from the ballot boxes where people have voted freely and (with) their conscience,” she said.
Balloting in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquake has given rise to concern about the registration of nearly 9 million voters.
Around 3 million people have left the quake zone for other provinces, but only 133,000 people have registered to vote at their new locations. Political parties and non-governmental organizations planned to transport voters by bus but it was not clear how many would make the journey back.
Many of the quake survivors will cast votes in containers turned into makeshift polling stations erected on school yards.
In Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city that was hit by the earthquake, Ramazan Akcay arrived early at his polling station to cast his vote.
“God willing it will be a democratic election,” he said. “May it be beneficial in the name of our country.”