Turkey vote for president, parliament in crucial test for Erdogan
LONDON – Turks began voting for a new president and parliament in elections that pose the biggest ballot box challenge to Tayyip Erdogan and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since they swept to power more than a decade and a half ago.
The elections will also usher in a powerful new executive presidency long sought by Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a 2017 referendum.
More than 56 million people were registered to vote at 180,000 ballot boxes across Turkey. Voting began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will end at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). Eligible voters include some 3 million expatriates who voted before June 24.
Erdogan, the most popular but also divisive leader in modern Turkish history, moved the elections forward from November 2019, arguing the new powers would better enable him to tackle the nation’s mounting economic problems – the lira has lost 20 percent against the dollar this year – and deal with Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey and in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.
But he reckoned without Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose feisty performance at campaign rallies has galvanized Turkey’s long-demoralised and divided opposition.
Addressing a rally in Istanbul attended by hundreds of thousands of people, Ince promised to reverse what he and opposition parties see as a swing towards authoritarian rule under Erdogan in the country of 81 million people.
“If Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to … Fear will continue to reign … If Ince wins, the courts will be independent,” said Ince, adding he would lift Turkey’s state of emergency within 48 hours of being elected.
Turkey has been under emergency rule for nearly two years following an abortive military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan, who defends his tough measures as essential for national security, told his supporters at rallies that if re-elected he would press ahead with more of the big infrastructure projects that have helped turn Turkey into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies during his time in office.
Polls show Erdogan falling short of a first-round victory in the presidential race but he would be expected to win a run-off on July 8, while his ruling party could lose its parliamentary majority, possibly heralding increased tensions between president and parliament.
Other presidential candidates include Selahattin Demirtas, leader of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who is now in jail on terrorism-related charges that he denies.
In a final appeal for votes in a video clip from his prison, Demirtas said: “If the HDP fails to get into parliament, all Turkey will lose. Backing the HDP means supporting democracy.”
Analysts say the opposition’s performance is all the more troubling for the authorities given how the campaign has been slanted in favour of Erdogan, who has dominated media airtime.
“Even if the odds are on the incumbent’s side, the race is likely to be far tighter than many expected,” said Ilke Toygur, analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and adjunct professor at University Carlos III in Madrid.
“Ince has shown in a very short time that a serious alternative could be emerging.”
Erdogan, whose mastery of political rhetoric is acknowledged even by critics, has won a dozen elections but is now fighting against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
The votes of Turkey’s Kurdish minority will be especially crucial in the parliamentary poll. If the HDP wins seats by polling over the 10 percent minimum threshold, the AKP will struggle to keep its overall majority.
The vote will be closely watched by the European Union — which Erdogan says he still wants Turkey to join despite the accession process grinding to a halt — and the United States which has seen no improvement in ties with its NATO ally under Donald Trump.
Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens are responding to calls from the opposition to monitor the polls for a clean election and a delegation of observers from the OSCE will also be in place.
Also challenging Erdogan is former Interior Minister Meral Aksener. The only female presidential candidate, she broke away from Turkey’s main nationalist party over its support for Erdogan and formed the center-right, nationalist Good Party.
Turkey will also be electing 600 lawmakers to parliament on Sunday — 50 more than in the previous assembly. The constitutional changes have allowed parties to form alliances, paving the way for Ince and Aksener’s parties to join a small Islamist party in the “Nation Alliance” against Erdogan. The HDP was left out of the alliance.
(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)