In Turkey, voters return to the polls to decide on opposing presidential ideas

ANKARA, Turkey — Voters in Turkey will return to the polls on Sunday to decide whether the country’s longtime leader will extend his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade or be replaced by a challenger who has promised to restore a more democratic society.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led Turkey for 20 years, is favored to win a new five-year term in a runoff after narrowly winning the first round on May 14.

The divisive populist, who turned his country into a geopolitical player, was four percentage points ahead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of the six-party alliance, the leader of Turkey’s main center-left opposition party. Erdogan’s performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.

Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-RDHR-OH-loo), a 74-year-old former bureaucrat, described the second round as a referendum on the country’s future.

More than 64 million people will be able to vote when the polls open at 8 a.m

There are no exit polls in Turkey, but preliminary results are expected within a few hours after the polls close at 5:00 p.m.

The final decision may have consequences beyond Ankara, because Turkey is at the intersection of Europe and Asia and plays a key role in NATO.

Turkey vetoed Sweden’s bid to join the alliance and buy Russian missile defense systems, prompting the US to push Turkey out of the US-led fighter jet project. But Erdogan’s government also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed grain shipments to Ukraine and averted a global food crisis.

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The May 14 election is expected to have an 87% turnout, with a strong turnout expected again on Sunday, reflecting voter commitment to the elections in a country where freedom of expression and assembly have been suppressed.

If he wins, the 69-year-old Erdogan could remain in power until 2028. After three terms as prime minister and two as president, the devout Muslim who heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party (AKP) is Turkey’s longest-serving leader. .

The first half of Erdogan’s tenure saw reforms that allowed the country to begin negotiations to join the European Union and economic growth that lifted many out of poverty. But he later moved to crack down on freedoms and media and concentrated more power in his hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was directed by US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. The priest denies that he was involved.

Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role into a powerful office through a narrowly won referendum in 2017 that ended Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 election that introduced the executive presidency.

The May 14 election was the first that Erdogan did not win outright.

Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for skyrocketing inflation, fueling a cost-of-living crisis. Many blamed his government for the slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.

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Still, Erdogan has retained the support of conservative voters who remain loyal to him because he has raised the profile of Islam in a country founded on secular principles and increased the country’s influence in world politics.

To win over voters hit hard by inflation, he raised wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills while touting Turkey’s domestic defense industry and infrastructure projects. He also focused his re-election campaign on a promise to rebuild earthquake-hit areas, including building 319,000 houses within a year. Many see it as a source of stability.

Kilicdaroglu is a soft-spoken former civil servant who has been the leader of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010. He campaigned on the promise of reversing Erdogan’s democratic decline, restoring the economy by returning to more traditional policies and improving relations. with the West.

In a frantic attempt to appeal to nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace talks with Kurdish militants if elected.

Many in Turkey see the Syrian refugees, who were under Turkey’s temporary protection after fleeing the war in neighboring Syria, as a burden on the country, and their repatriation has become a key issue in the election.

Earlier this week, Erdogan received the endorsement of the third-placed candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, who won 5.2% of the vote and is no longer in the race. Meanwhile, a staunchly anti-migrant party that backed Ogan’s candidacy announced its support for Kilicdaroglu.

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Defeat for Kilicdaroglu would add to Erdogan’s long list of electoral losses and put pressure on him to resign as party chairman.

Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained the majority of seats in parliament following legislative elections also held on May 14. The parliamentary elections will not be repeated on Sunday.

Erdogan’s party also dominated the earthquake-hit region, winning 10 of 11 provinces in an area that has traditionally supported the president. Erdogan finished in eight provinces in the presidential race.

As in previous elections, Erdogan used state resources and his control over the media to reach voters.

Following the May 14 vote, international observers also pointed to the criminalization of spreading false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “undue advantage.” Observers say the election showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.

Erdogan and pro-government media have portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who has the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what they say are “deviant” LGBTQ rights.

Kilicdaroglu “takes his orders from Qandil,” Erdogan said repeatedly at recent campaign rallies, referring to the Iraqi mountains where the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is based.

“We get our orders from God and from people,” he said.

The election was held after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the country as a republic.