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Country erupts over 'craziest election ever'

The election could spell the end of a 20-year reign for Turkey's leader Tayyip Erdogan, a NATO-member country of 85 million people.

Turkey's streets have erupted as it appears the country is headed for a political stalemate in what's being described as the "craziest election in decades" for the country.

The country is gearing up for a runoff presidential election, with the parties of both the incumbent authoritarian leader Tayyip Erdogan and opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu both claiming the lead but sources in both camps admitting they may not clear the 50 per cent threshold to win outright as votes roll in from the national election.

Early results on Sunday (local time) put Erdogan comfortably ahead, but as the count continued his advantage eroded, with a runoff on May 28 now beckoning.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and AK Party (AKP) react following early exit poll results for the presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey May 15, 2023. REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and AK Party (AKP) swarm the streets. Source: Reuters
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance,  react after early exit polls at the Republican People's Party (CHP) headquarters in Ankara, Turkey May 14, 2023. REUTERS/Cagla Gurdogan
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition alliance, react after early exit polls on Sunday. Source: Reuters

Both sides dismissed the other side's count, with no official result announced. Ankara's opposition mayor Mansur Yavas said a count by his party suggested Kilicdaroglu was ahead with 47.42 per cent, while Erdogan had 46.48 per cent.

Opinion polls before the election had given Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slight lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50 per cent threshold.

A senior official from the opposition alliance, asking not to be named, said "it seems there will be no winner in the first round. But, our data indicates Kilicdaroglu will lead."

Turkey Bureau Chief for the Middle East Eye, Ragip Soylu, described it as the "craziest election ever in Turkey for decades".

Election could end leader's 20-year hold on power

Citing figures from state-owned agency Anadolu, Turkish media said that with almost 75 per cent of ballot boxes counted, Erdogan was on 50.83 per cent and Kilicdaroglu on 43.36 per cent.

Sunday's vote is one of the most consequential elections in the country's 100-year history, a contest that could end Erdogan's imperious 20-year rule and reverberate well beyond Turkey's borders.

The presidential vote will decide not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost of living crisis, and the shape of its foreign policy.

The elections, which are also for parliament, are being intently watched in Western capitals, the Middle East, NATO and Moscow.

Putin and the West watch on closely

A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin's most important allies, will likely unnerve the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had troubled relations with Erdogan.

Turkey's longest-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe's second largest country into a global player, modernised it through megaprojects such as new bridges, hospitals and airports, and built a military industry sought by foreign states.

But his volatile economic policy of low interest rates, which set off a spiralling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters' anger. His government's slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to voters' dismay.

People react following early exit poll results for the presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey May 15, 2023. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan
People react following early exit poll results for the presidential and parliamentary elections, in Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Reuters

Kilicdaroglu has pledged to set Turkey on a new course by reviving democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, empowering institutions who lost autonomy under Erdogan's tight grasp and rebuilding frail ties with the West.

Thousands of political prisoners and activists, including high level names such as Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala, could be released if the opposition prevails.

"I see these elections as a choice between democracy and dictatorship," said Ahmet Kalkan, 64, as he voted in Istanbul for Kilicdaroglu, echoing critics who fear Erdogan will govern ever more autocratically if he wins.

"I chose democracy and I hope that my country chooses democracy," said Kalkan, a retired health sector worker.

Erdogan, 69, is a veteran of a dozen election victories, and says he respects democracy and denies being a dictator.

Illustrating how the president still commands support, Mehmet Akif Kahraman, also voting in Istanbul, said Erdogan still represented the future even after two decades in power.

"God willing, Turkey will be a world leader," he said.

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