The joint opposition candidate seeking to unseat Turkey’s strongman leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan contested the incumbent president’s reported lead on Sunday night in a crucial election seen as a referendum on the country’s future.
The centre-left Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a moderate former civil servant selected as the joint candidate of six opposition parties in a bid to dislodge Mr Erdogan, had promised to reverse Turkey’s authoritarian slide and restore democratic institutions and rule of law.
“We are ahead,” Mr Kilicdaroglu tweeted as counting was under way.
But Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party also claimed a lead, making for an unclear picture in the tightly fought race.
Turkish news agencies reported different figures from initial vote counts, with the state-owned Anadolu Agency giving Mr Erdogan a significant lead at 51.9 per cent while Mr Kilicdaroglu was at 42.3 per cent with over half of votes counted.
The privately owned Anka, however, showed intial results to be much tighter, with Mr Erdogan on 47.4 per cent and Mr Kilicdaroglu on 46.8 per cent.
If neither reaches 50 per cent of the vote, the election will go to a run-off to be held on May 28th. A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, was reported to have won about 5 per cent.
Turkey’s pivotal geopolitical role at the gateway between Europe and the Middle East made the election closely watched internationally for its consequences for the wider region.
Pitting a populist strongman against a moderate ex-accountant, the election was seen as a referendum to determine the country’s future, a century since the founding of the secular republic.
Long lines were reported outside polling booths as turnout was high, even for a country where it often tops 85 per cent, reflecting the tightly fought contest and high stakes.
Mr Erdogan cast his opponents as a threat to Turkey, while his challengers characterised the vote as the country’s last chance to end “one-man rule”.
Six opposition parties banded together behind a single joint candidate in an effort to unseat Mr Erdogan, making for the first serious challenge to the populist leader since he came to power 20 years ago.
In far-reaching promises, the opposition promised to restore an independent judicial system and reverse the presidential system created under Mr Erdogan that consolidated his grip on power.
An economic crisis that saw inflation hit 85 per cent last year and the international purchasing power of the lira dwindle to a fraction of what it was a decade ago was the driving issue of the election, as the cost of living spiralled.
The vote was overshadowed by the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in February that killed 50,000 people, provoking anger at lax enforcement of building standards and a rescue effort perceived as too slow.
As polls narrowed, Mr Erdogan promised wage hikes to shore up his support, appealed to family values and turned to polarising rhetoric by accusing the opposition of being “pro-LGBT” and associating them with Kurdish militants.
The soft-spoken Mr Kilicdaroglu spoke of unifying all Turks regardless of background, and accused the government of stigmatising the Kurdish minority for political reasons.
In a key moment of the campaign, the former civil servant candidly acknowledged his identity as an Alevi, a minority within Islam that has faced discrimination, breaking a political taboo.
Some 61 million Turks including 3.4 million overseas were eligible to vote for a five-year-term in the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections.