ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Preliminary, unofficial results from Turkish news agencies showed incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead with 88% of ballot boxes counted in a presidential runoff that will decide whether the country’s longtime leader stretches his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade.
The state Anadolu news agency showed Erdogan at 53%, and his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, at 47%.
Meanwhile, the ANKA news agency, close to the opposition, showed the results at 51% for Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu at 49%.
The outcome could have implications far beyond Ankara. Turkey stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it plays a key role in NATO.
Erdogan’s government vetoed Sweden’s bid to join NATO and purchased Russian missile-defense systems, which prompted the United States to oust Turkey from a U.S.-led fighter-jet project. But it also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.
The competing news agencies get their data from completed ballot box counts that are gathered by personnel on the field, and are strong in different regions, explaining some of the variation in preliminary data. Turkey’s electoral board sends its own data to political parties throughout the vote count but doesn’t declare official results until days later.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at Turkey’s helm for 20 years, was favored to win a new five-year term in the second-round runoff, after coming just short of outright victory in the first round on May 14.
The divisive populist finished four percentage points ahead of Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo), the candidate of a six-party alliance. Erdogan’s performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago. It was the first time he didn’t win an election where he ran as a candidate.
The two candidates offered sharply different visions of the country’s future, and its recent past.
“This election took place under very difficult circumstances, there was all sorts of slander and defamation,” the 74-year-old Kilicdaroglu told reporters after casting his ballot. “But I trust in the common sense of the people. Democracy will come, freedom will come, people will be able to wander the streets and freely criticize politicians.”
Speaking to reporters after casting his vote at a school in Istanbul, Erdogan noted that it’s the first presidential runoff election in Turkey’s history. He also praised high voter turnout in the first round and said he expected participation to be high again on Sunday. He voted at the same time as Kilicdaroglu, as local television showed the rivals casting ballots on split screens.
“I pray to God, that it (the election) will be beneficial for our country and nation,” he said.
Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis. Many also faulted his government for a slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.
In the mainly Kurdish-populated province of Diyarbakir — one of 11 regions that was hit by the Feb. 6 earthquake — 60-year-old retiree Mustafa Yesil said he voted for “change.”
“I’m not happy at all with the way this country is going. Let me be clear, if this current administration continues, I don’t see good things for the future,” he said. “I see that it will end badly — this administration has to change.”
Mehmet Yurttas, an Erdogan supporter, disagreed.
“I believe that our homeland is at the peak, in a very good condition,” the 57-year-old shop owner said. “Our country’s trajectory is very good and it will continue being good.”
Erdogan has retained the backing of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in the Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and for raising the country’s influence in world politics.
If he wins, Erdogan, 69, could remain in power until 2028. A devout Muslim, he heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office through a narrowly won 2017 referendum that scrapped Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014, and won the 2018 election that ushered in the executive presidency.
The first half of Erdogan’s tenure included reforms that allowed the country to begin talks to join the European Union, and economic growth that lifted many out of poverty. But he later moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his own hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.
Erdogan’s rival is a soft-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. Kilicdaroglu campaigned on promises to reverse Erdogan’s democratic backsliding, to restore the economy by reverting to more conventional policies, and to improve ties with the West.
In a frantic effort to reach out to nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace negotiations with Kurdish militants if he is elected.
A defeat for Kilicdaroglu would add to a long list of electoral losses to Erdogan, and put pressure on him to step down as party chairman.
Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament following a legislative election that was also held on May 14.
Sunday also marked the 10th anniversary of the start of mass anti-government protests that broke out over plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and became one of the most serious challenges to Erdogan’s government.
Erdogan’s response to the protests, in which eight people were convicted for alleged involvement, was a harbinger of a crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression.
Following the May 14 vote, international observers pointed to the criminalization of dissemination of false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “unjustified advantage.” They also said that strong turnout showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.
Erdogan and pro-government media portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and of supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.
Kilicdaroglu “receives his orders from Qandil,” Erdogan repeatedly said at recent campaign rallies, a reference to the mountains in Iraq where the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is based.
The election was held as the country marked the 100th anniversary of its establishment as a republic, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.