ANKARA, Turkey — Early returns from Turkey’s national election Sunday had President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a solid lead after some 47% of ballot boxes were counted, the Turkish state-run news agency said, while the longtime leader’s main challenger disputed the numbers that showed him trailing.
Erdogan, who has governed NATO member Turkey as either prime minister or president for two decades, had 52.2 of the vote from the partial count, compared to 41.9% garnered by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Anadolu Agency reported.
In the run-up to the election, opinion surveys had indicated the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan narrowly trailed his challenger. The race, which largely centered on domestic issues such as the economy, civil rights and a February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people, had appeared to be shaping up as the toughest re-election bid of the Turkish leader’s 20-year rule.
With the partial results showing otherwise, members of Kilicdaroglu’s center-left, pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, disputed Anadolu’s numbers, contending the state-run agency was biased in Erodgan’s favor.
“We are ahead,” tweeted Kilicdaroglu, 74, who ran as the candidate of a six-party opposition alliance.
The election could grant Erdogan, 69, another five-year term or see him unseated by Kilicdaroglu, who campaigned on a promise to return Turkey to a more democratic path and to repair an economy battered by high inflation and currency devaluation. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the winner will be determined in a May 28 run-off.
Voters also elected lawmakers to fill Turkey’s 600-seat parliament, which lost much of its legislative power after Erdogan’s executive presidency. The opposition has promised to return Turkey’s governance system to a parliamentary democracy if it wins both the presidential and parliamentary ballots.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote. This year marks 100 years since Turkey’s establishment as a republic — a modern, secular state born on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, but the government has suppressed freedom of expression and assembly since a 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan blamed the failed coup on followers of a former ally, cleric Fethullah Gulen, and initiated a large-scale crackdown on civil servants with alleged links to Gulen and on pro-Kurdish politicians.
Internationally, the elections were seen as a test of a united opposition’s ability to dislodge a leader who has concentrated nearly all state powers in his hands and worked to wield more influence on the world stage.
Erdogan, along with the United Nations, helped mediate a deal with Ukraine and Russia that allowed Ukrainian grain to reach the rest of the world from Black Sea ports despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. The agreement is set to expire in days, and Turkey hosted talks last week to keep it alive.
The war in Ukraine inspired Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership as protection against potential Russian aggression. But Erdogan has held up Sweden’s accession to the alliance and demanded concessions, contending that nation was too lenient on followers of the U.S. based cleric and members of pro-Kurdish groups that Turkey considers national security threats.
Critics maintain the president’s heavy-handed style is responsible for a painful cost-of-living crisis. The latest official statistics put inflation at about 44%, down from a high of around 86%. The price of vegetables became a campaign issue for the opposition, which used an onion as a symbol.
In contrast with mainstream economic thinking, Erdogan contends that high interest rates fuel inflation, and he pressured the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey to lower its main rate multiple times.
Erdogan’s government also faced criticism for its allegedly delayed and stunted response to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that caused devastation in 11 southern provinces. A lax implementation of building codes is thought to have exacerbated the casualties and misery.
In his election campaign, Erdogan used state resources and his domineering position over media to try to woo voters. He accused the opposition of colluding with “terrorists,” of being “drunkards” and of upholding LGBTQ+ rights, which he depicts as threatening traditional family values in the predominantly Muslim nation.
In a bid to secure support from citizens hit hard by inflation, he increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defense and infrastructure projects.
Kilicdaroglu’s six-party Nation Alliance pledged to dismantle the executive presidency system, to restore the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, and to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding in Turkey.
At polling stations, many voters struggled trying to fold bulky ballot papers — they featured 24 political parties competing for seats in parliament — and to fit them into envelopes along with the ballot for the presidency.
“It’s important for Turkey. It’s important for the people,” said Necati Aktuna, a voter in Ankara. “I’ve been voting for the last 60 years. I haven’t seen a more important election that this one.”
“We have all missed democracy so much. We all missed being together,” Kilicdaroglu said after voting at a school in Ankara, where his supporters chanted “President Kilicdaroglu!”
Also running for president was Sinan Ogan, a former academic who has the backing of an anti-immigrant nationalist party.
In the 11 provinces affected by the earthquake, nearly 9 million people were eligible to vote. Some 3 million people left the quake zone for other provinces, but only 133,000 people registered to vote at their new locations.
Erdogan said voting went ahead “without any problems,” including in the earthquake-affected provinces.
“It is my hope that after the evening’s count … there will be a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy,” Erdogan said.
In Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city that was hit by the earthquake, Ramazan Akcay arrived early at his polling station to cast his vote.
“God willing it will be a democratic election,” he said. “May it be beneficial in the name of our country.”