Turkish voters on Sunday cast their votes in the first parliamentary and presidential elections in years, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing his greatest political challenge in his 15-year rule.
Erdogan, who served as prime minster beginning in 2002 and subsequently took office as president in 2014, is facing, for the first time, a united and robust opposition which includes Islamists, nationalists, and secularists. His main competitor for the presidency is the centre-left candidate Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Part (CHP), of the secularist opposition.
More than 56 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots at nearly 180 polling stations across the country, with six candidates running for the highest office.
Although Erdogan is seen as the frontrunner, he must secure more than 50% of the vote on Sunday, otherwise a runoff could be held on 8 July between the two leading candidates.
Ince, a former physics teacher who has become the foremost rival to Erdogan in the intense presidential race and could push him to a runoff, was elected four consecutive times in 2002, 2007, 2011, and 2015 as a CHP MP for his hometown.
Before a rally with more than a million people in the Maltepe district of Istanbul, Ince called for voters to avoid voting for his rival, saying, “if Erdogan wins, your phones will continue to be listened to…fear will continue to reign, but if Ince wins, the courts will be independent.”
He further added that he would lift the state of emergency within 48 hours of taking office, which was declared after the failed military coup in 2016 and followed by a harsh crackdown.
The new man in office will be granted executive presidential powers, including over the judiciary, thanks to the controversial referendum Erdogan narrowly won last year, which could keep him, if he wins, in office until 2029. The new system abolishes the post of prime minster, transferring executive powers to the president, entering Turkey into a new, cloudy era.
Since the failed military coup in 2016, Erdogan has jailed tens thousands of his opponents. According to a UN Human Rights report, more than 160,000 people were arrested while nearly the same number were dismissed from their jobs.
On an international level, Turkey has become a major player in the devastating Syrian civil war, as Turkey conducted airstrikes in northern Syria against Kurdish opposition forces which Ankara considers terrorists.