ISTANBUL – Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears set to extend his leadership of the influential NATO member after seeing the biggest challenge to his 20-year rule.
Early results from Sunday’s crucial runoff election suggest Erdoğan has secured another five years in power after a vote that has been closely watched from Washington and Kiev to Moscow and Beijing. Preliminary results suggest that he won 59.7% of the vote, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has vowed to restore democracy, trails with 42.91% of the vote, according to Anadolu.
Erdogan’s apparent triumph in the centenary year of the Republic of Turkey comes after one of the most disputed presidential elections in recent memory.
Voters returned to the polls for the second round after Erdoğan and Kilicdaroglu failed to get more than 50% of the vote in the first round of voting on May 14.
Although Turkey is a NATO ally and is holding elections, the country of 84 million has slipped more towards authoritarianism under Erdogan and maintained close ties with Russia.
Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties, has vowed to reverse the country’s drift away from democracy.
It was a chance for change in a country where Erdogan’s AK Party has been in power since 2002. Erdogan, 69, became prime minister the following year and took office as president in 2014.
Erdoğan trailed in opinion polls following a campaign dominated by the aftermath of this year’s devastating earthquake and the country’s economic crisis. But he led the first round of voting and narrowly missed outright victory.
The sharp cost-of-living crisis dominated the agenda, along with a backlash against millions of Syrian refugees, as both candidates tried to bolster their nationalist credentials ahead of the runoff.
Kilicdaroglu has led the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. He had previously said he intended to repatriate the refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return, but later vowed to send all refugees home once he was elected president.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan courted and won the endorsement of nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, the former academic who was endorsed for president by an anti-immigrant party but eliminated after finishing third in the first round of voting.
On the campaign trail, Ogan said he would consider forcibly sending migrants back if necessary.
Before the first round, Erdoğan also raised salaries and pensions, and subsidized electricity and gas bills in a bid to woo voters, while leading a divisive campaign in which he accused the opposition of being «drunken» in collusion with «terrorists». He also attacked them for standing up for LGBTQ rights, which he said were a threat to traditional family values.
Turkey also held legislative elections on May 14, with Erdogan’s alliance of nationalist and Islamist parties winning a majority in the 600-seat parliament. As a result, some analysts suggested this would give him a runoff advantage because voters were unlikely to want a fragmented government.
Kilicdaroglu, a soft-spoken 74-year-old, built a reputation as a bridge builder and recorded videos in his kitchen in an attempt to speak to voters during the campaign.
His six-party National Alliance vowed to dismantle the narrowly voted presidential executive system in a 2017 referendum. Since then, Erdogan has centralized power in a 1,000-room palace on the outskirts of Ankara, where policy is made. economic and security aspects of Turkey and its national and international affairs.
In addition to returning the country to parliamentary democracy, Kilicdaroglu and the alliance vowed to establish the independence of the judiciary and central bank, institute checks and balances, and reverse democratic rollback and the crackdown on free speech and dissent under Erdogan.
The results will have myriad ramifications outside of Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Despite being a member of NATO, the country has maintained close ties with Russia and blocked Sweden’s membership in the Western military alliance.
Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the US, controls the narrow Bosphorus Strait and is believed to host US nuclear missiles on its territory.
Together with the UN, Turkey brokered a vital deal that has allowed Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea to parts of the world struggling with famine.
Neyran Elden reported from Istanbul and Henry Austin from London.