Voters are heading to the polls in Turkey’s most consequential election in two decades as longtime leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seeks to fend off a united opposition led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Polls opened at 8am Ankara time on Sunday in presidential and parliamentary elections that offer two widely divergent paths for Turkey.
Erdoğan, who first carried his Justice and Development party (AKP) to power in 2002, is fighting his toughest campaign as he spars with Kılıçdaroğlu, who is representing a six-party opposition alliance. The results will carry global resonance since Turkey, a member of Nato, has played an increasingly important role on the international stage in recent years.
Kılıçdaroğlu has vowed to revive Turkey’s ailing economy, bring the country closer to the west’s orbit and restore crucial institutions that have been undermined during Erdoğan’s long tenure, first as prime minister and now as president.
The 74-year-old opposition leader has regularly campaigned with other popular politicians who are part of the “table of six” coalition, including the mayors of Turkey’s biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara.
Polls published in recent days have given Kılıçdaroğlu an edge over his 69-year-old opponent, with Erdoğan’s handling of the country’s $900bn economy having severely dented his support. But analysts and even senior opposition officials warn against underestimating Erdoğan, who has dominated Turkish politics in a way no other person has since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the republic a century ago.
“Everything is up in the air,” said Ali Çarkoğlu, a political-science professor at Istanbul’s Koc University, who added that Turkey remained “deeply divided on identity issues”.
Erdoğan, whose final campaign stop on Saturday was attending evening prayers at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia mosque, remains popular with conservative, pious voters in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.
At fiery campaign rallies, Erdoğan has framed himself as the only person who can secure a prosperous future for Turkey and defend family values. On Saturday he also accused Kılıçdaroğlu, a member of the minority Alevi sect in predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey, of working with US president Joe Biden to defeat him, without presenting evidence.
“Biden instructed that ‘we have to bring Erdoğan down’. I know this. All my people know this,” Erdoğan said. “Now, tomorrow, the ballot boxes will give an answer to Biden as well.”
In recent weeks, Erdoğan has boosted wages for public sector workers, given consumers a free month of natural gas, doled out 10GB of internet for students and attended the opening of new facilities that he said would boost Turkey’s energy independence and give it a bigger role on the world stage.
Twitter on Saturday said that in response to a “legal process” it would “restrict access to some content in Turkey”. Owner Elon Musk later tweeted that his company faced a choice of the website being “throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets”, and that he would share what the government had sent Twitter.
Among the content that users in Turkey could not view were accounts with large followings that have accused Erdoğan of corruption.
Analysts said that although Erdoğan’s handouts and grip on large swaths of the media meant the election campaign had not been fair, voting day should mostly be free.
Schools, which are the primary voting places, were busy both in Istanbul and Ankara on Sunday, with queues seen in both cities as people prepared to cast their ballots.
Amina, a 20-year-old first-time voter who did not give her surname, arrived at a polling station in central Istanbul with four members of her family, including her 89-year-old grandmother. The family, which is Kurdish, joked that they cancelled out each others’ votes, with most backing Kılıçdaroğlu and the pro-Kurdish Green Left, while Amina chose “continuity” with Erdoğan.
There was also a significant police presence on Sunday with motorcycles zipping up and down the streets of Istanbul and heavily armoured trucks patrolling in the heart of Ankara, the capital city.
Süleyman Soylu, interior minister, said 600,000 security guards, police, gendarmerie, coast guard and security guards were on duty in response to “the district election boards’ call”.
Many analysts and observers are concerned over whether Erdoğan will give up power if he loses, particularly if the results are close. Late on Friday, Erdoğan vowed to respect the outcome, saying in a television interview: “We came to power democratically in Turkey, just as we came to power with the people’s support, if our people make a different decision, we will do whatever democracy requires.”
Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu must secure more than half of the votes to win the election outright, otherwise it will go to an unprecedented run-off in two weeks’ time. Muharrem İnce, a minor party candidate, dropped out of the race on Thursday, but his name will remain on ballots. Sinan Oğan, another small party candidate, is still competing in the election.
Turks will also on Sunday vote in parliamentary elections, which could shake up the balance of power. An alliance between Erdoğan’s AKP and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement party holds a majority in the legislative branch.