Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a speech at the party headquarters, in Ankara, Türkiye, May 15, 2023. Erdogan, who has ruled his country with an increasingly firm grip for 20 years, was locked in a tight election race Sunday, with a make-or-break runoff against his chief challenger possible as the final votes were counted. (PHOTO / AP)
ISTANBUL – Türkiye headed for a runoff presidential vote after President Tayyip Erdogan outperformed projections in Sunday's election as he sought to extend his two-decade rule, holding a sizable lead over his rival but falling short of an outright majority.
Neither Erdogan nor rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu cleared the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a second round, to be held on May 28, in an election seen as a verdict on Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian path.
The presidential vote will decide not only who leads Türkiye, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also whether it reverts to a more secular, democratic path; how it will handle its severe cost of living crisis and manage key relations with Russia, the Middle East and the West.
Kilicdaroglu, who said he would prevail in the runoff, urged his supporters to be patient and accused Erdogan's party of interfering with the counting and reporting of results.
The presidential vote will decide not only who leads Türkiye, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also whether it reverts to a more secular, democratic path; how it will handle its severe cost of living crisis and manage key relations with Russia, the Middle East and the West
But Erdogan performed better than pre-election polls had predicted, and he appeared in a confident and combative mood as he addressed his flag-waving, cheering supporters.
"We are already ahead of our closest rival by 2.6 million votes. We expect this figure to increase with official results," Erdogan said.
With almost 97 percent of ballot boxes counted, Erdogan led with 49.39 percent of votes and Kilicdaroglu had 44.92 percent, according to state-owned news agency Anadolu. Türkiye's High Election Board gave Erdogan 49.49 percent with 91.93 percent of ballot boxes counted.
Erdogan has edge
The results reflected deep polarization in a country at a political crossroads. The vote was set to hand Erdogan's ruling alliance a majority in parliament, giving him a potential edge heading into the runoff.
Opinion polls before the election had pointed to a very tight race but gave Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slight lead. Two polls on Friday even showed him above the 50 percent threshold.
"Erdogan will have an advantage in a second vote after his alliance did far better than the opposition's alliance," said Hakan Akbas, managing director of political advisory Strategic Advisory Services.
A third nationalist presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, stood at 5.3 percent of the vote. He could be a "kingmaker" in the runoff depending on which candidate he endorses, analysts said.
The opposition said Erdogan's party was delaying full results from emerging by lodging objections, while authorities were publishing results in an order that artificially boosted Erdogan's tally.
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Kilicdaroglu, in an earlier appearance, said that Erdogan's party was "destroying the will of Türkiye" by objecting to the counts of more than 1,000 ballot boxes. "You cannot prevent what will happen with objections. We will never let this become a fait accompli," he said.
Meanwhile, supporters of both sides celebrated.
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheer outside the party headquarters in Ankara, Türkiye , May 14, 2023. Erdogan, who has ruled his country with an increasingly firm grip for 20 years, was locked in a tight election race Sunday, with a make-or-break runoff against his chief challenger possible as the final votes were counted. (PHOTO / AP)
Thousands of Erdogan voters converged on the party's headquarters in Ankara, blasting party songs from loudspeakers and waving flags and Erdogan posters. Some danced in the street.
Key putin ally
"We know it is not exactly a celebration yet but we hope we will soon celebrate his victory. Erdogan is the best leader we had for this country and we love him," said Yalcin Yildrim, 39, who owns a textile factory.
Feyyaz Balcu, 23, a cyber security engineer said: "We accept that the economy is not in good shape now but Erdogan will make it better."
At Kilicdaroglu's CHP party headquarters, supporters waved flags of Türkiye's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and beat drums.
The choice of Türkiye's next president is one of the most consequential political decisions in the country's 100-year history and will reverberate well beyond Türkiye's borders.
A victory for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin's most important allies, will likely cheer the Kremlin but unnerve the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had troubled relations with Erdogan.
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Türkiye's longest-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe's second-largest country into a global player, modernized it through megaprojects such as new bridges and airports and built an arms industry sought by foreign states.
But his volatile economic policy of low interest rates, which set off a spiraling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters' anger. His government's slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Türkiye that killed 50,000 people earlier this year added to voters' dismay.
Kilicdaroglu has pledged to revive democracy after years of state repression, return to orthodox economic policies, empower institutions that lost autonomy under Erdogan and rebuild frail ties with the West.
Supporters of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People's Party, or CHP, cheer outside the party's headquarters in Ankara, Türkiye , May 14, 2023. More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote. (PHOTO / AP)
Thousands of political prisoners and activists could be released if the opposition prevails.
Critics fear Erdogan will govern ever more autocratically if he wins another term. The 69-year-old president, a veteran of a dozen election victories, says he respects democracy.
In the parliamentary vote, the People's Alliance of Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AKP, the nationalist MHP and others fared better than expected and were headed for a majority.
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With 93 percent of votes counted, it was on course for 324 seats in the 600-seat parliament. Kilicdaroglu's Nation Alliance formed of six opposition parties, including his secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) established by Ataturk, looked set for 211 seats.
The Labor and Freedom alliance, led by the pro-Kurdish Green Left party, appeared headed for 65 seats.