ISTANBUL: Turks began voting today for a new president and parliament in elections that pose the biggest challenge to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) since they swept to power more than a decade and a half ago.
Voting started at 8am local time (1000 PST) and ends at 5pm (1900 PST). Nearly 60 million Turks are eligible to vote, out of a total population of 81 million.
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. Critics say it will further erode democracy in the NATO member state and entrench one-man rule.
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 per cent against the dollar this year — and deal with Kurdish rebels 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 galvanised Turkey’s long-demoralised and divided opposition.
Addressing a rally in Istanbul on Saturday attended by at least one million people, and possibly many more, Ince promised to reverse what he and opposition parties see as Turkey’s swing toward authoritarian rule under Erdogan.
“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 — which restricts some personal freedoms and allows the government to bypass parliament with emergency decrees — for nearly two years following an abortive military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan blamed the coup on his former ally, US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and has waged a sweeping crackdown on the preacher’s followers in Turkey. The United Nations says some 160,000 people have been detained and nearly as many more, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked.
The president’s critics, including the European Union which Turkey still nominally aspires to join, say Erdogan has used the crackdown to stifle dissent. Few newspapers or other media now openly criticise the government and he has received far more election coverage than other presidential candidates.
Erdogan, who defends his tough measures as essential for national security, told his supporters at rallies on Saturday 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.