Turkey votes Sunday in a historic election that will either extend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year reign or set the predominantly Muslim country on a more secular path.
The presidential and parliamentary elections have devolved into a referendum on Turkey’s longest-serving president and his Islamic-rooted party.
It is also the most difficult of more than a dozen challenges Erdogan has faced, and surveys indicate he may lose.
The 69-year-old has led the 85-million-strong country through one of the most dramatic and controversial periods in the post-Ottoman state’s 100-year history.
Turkey has evolved into a military and geopolitical powerhouse, with responsibilities in crises ranging from Syria to Ukraine.
Because NATO members have a presence in both Europe and the Middle East, the outcome of the election is as important for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.
However, Erdogan’s first decade of economic restoration and improved relations with Europe was followed by a decade of social and political upheaval.
He responded to a failed coup attempt in 2016 with sweeping purges that shook Turkish society and made him an increasingly uneasy partner for the West.
The advent of Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his six-party alliance a group that forms the type of broad-based coalition that Erdogan excelled at forming during his career provides a clear option to foreign allies and Turkish voters.
According to polls, the 74-year-old secular opposition leader is on the verge of exceeding the 50% level required to win in the first round.
A runoff election on May 28 might provide Erdogan with time to regroup and redefine the argument.
But he would still be haunted by Turkey’s worst economic crisis in his presidency, as well as dissatisfaction with his government’s delayed reaction to a February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.
Armour for body
Erdogan’s second decade in office saw him ditch more liberal allies and become increasingly reliant on far-right Turkish political fringe groups.
As election day approached, his campaign grew increasingly personalized to his core followers.
He called the opposition a “pro-LGBT” lobby that was funded by the West and followed orders from illegal Kurdish insurgents.
His aggressive interior minister has often referenced Joe Biden’s remark as a then-presidential contender in 2019 that Washington should empower the opposition “to take on and defeat Erdogan.”
Erdogan’s ministers and pro-government media referred to a Western “political coup” plot in a gloomy tone.
The opposition became concerned that Erdogan was plotting measures to maintain power at whatever cost.
Tensions erupted when Istanbul’s opposition Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu was hit with rocks and bottles while touring Turkey’s conservative heartland. Imamoglu is a determined adversary of Erdogan who could become Kilicdaroglu’s vice president.
Kilicdaroglu attended two campaign rallies on Friday while wearing body armour and surrounded by men armed with long rifles.
On Saturday, the opposition leader concluded his campaign by laying carnations at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the famed military commander who established the secular Turkish state.
“Long live democracy, love, the republic, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,” Kilicdaroglu said in his final video message before the election.
Erdogan concluded his visit by leading prayers at Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia mosque.
It was a signature flourish that brazenly defied his detractors while paying respect to his most ardent supporters.
The Hagia Sophia was formerly a Byzantine cathedral, once the largest in the world, before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.
As part of the contemporary republic’s efforts to eliminate religion from public life, it was converted into a museum.
Erdogan’s choice to repurpose it as a mosque in 2020 cemented his hero status among his religious supporters while also contributing to growing Western disquiet with his administration.
“The whole West was furious but I did it,” Erdogan remarked on Saturday.
There was a large turnout
The election is projected to draw a large number of voters from the country’s 64 million registered voters.
Erdogan won the previous national election with 52.5 percent of the vote on a turnout of more than 86 percent.
There are no exit polls in Turkey, however, ballots are counted rapidly.
All reporting limitations are abolished four hours after polling booths shut at 5:00 p.m. (1400 GMT). Sometimes the first findings are published ahead of time.
Voters will also choose a new 600-member parliament.
According to polls, Erdogan’s right-wing alliance is edging out the opposition bloc in the legislative election.
However, the opposition would gain a majority if it could garner the support of a new leftist alliance representing the Kurdish vote.