ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears set to extend his leadership of the influential NATO member after seeing the biggest challenge to his 20-year rule.
Early results from Sunday’s crucial election suggest Erdoğan got five more years in power after a vote that was closely watched from Washington and kyiv to Moscow and Beijing. Preliminary results suggest he won 59.7% of the vote, according to the official Anadolu news agency.
Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has pledged to restore democracy, is trailing with 42.91% of the vote, according to Anadolu.
Erdoğan’s apparent triumph on the centenary of the Turkish Republic comes after one of the most contested presidential elections in recent times.
Voters returned to the polls for the second round after Erdoğan and Kilicdaroglu each failed to secure more than 50% of the vote in the May 14 first round of voting.
Although Turkey is a NATO ally and holds elections, the country of 84 million has slid further into authoritarianism under Erdoğan and has maintained close ties with Russia.
Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties, has pledged to reverse the country’s tilt away from democracy.
It was an opportunity for change in a country where Erdoğan’s AK party has been in power since 2002. Erdoğan, 69, became prime minister the following year and began serving as president in 2014 .
Erdoğan lagged in opinion polls following a campaign dominated by the fallout from this year’s devastating earthquake and the country’s economic turmoil. But he led the first round of voting and fell just short of outright victory.
The sharp cost of living crisis dominated the agenda, along with a backlash against millions of Syrian refugees as both candidates sought to bolster their nationalist credentials ahead of the second round.
Kilicdaroglu has led the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. He previously said he intended to repatriate the refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return, but he then pledged to send all refugees home once he was elected president.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, courted and secured the support of nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, the former academic who was backed for president by an anti-migrant party but eliminated after finishing third in the first round of voting.
During the election campaign, Ogan said he would consider forcibly returning migrants if necessary.
Ahead of the first round, Erdoğan also raised salaries and pensions, and subsidized electricity and gas bills in a bid to woo voters, while waging a divisive campaign that saw him accuse the opposition of to be “drunkards” in collusion with “terrorists”. He also attacked them for standing up for LGBTQ rights, which he said posed a threat to traditional family values.
Turkey also held parliamentary elections on May 14, and Erdoğan’s alliance of nationalist and Islamist parties won a majority in the 600-seat parliament. As a result, some analysts suggested it would give him an advantage in the second round as voters were unlikely to want a split government.
Kilicdaroglu, a soft-spoken 74-year-old, has earned a reputation as a bridge builder and has recorded videos in his kitchen in an effort to speak to voters during the campaign.
His six-party national alliance has promised to dismantle the executive presidential system that was narrowly voted for in a 2017 referendum. Erdoğan has since centralized power in a 1,000-room palace on the outskirts of Ankara, and it is from from there Turkey’s economic and security policies and its domestic and international affairs are decided.
In addition to returning the country to parliamentary democracy, Kilicdaroglu and the alliance pledged to establish the independence of the judiciary and central bank, institute checks and balances, and reverse democratic backsliding and repression. freedom of expression and dissent under Erdoğan.
The results will have multiple ramifications outside of Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Despite being a member of NATO, the country maintained close ties with Russia and blocked Sweden’s membership in the Western military alliance.
Turkey has the second-largest armed forces in NATO after the United States, controls the crucial Bosphorus strait and is widely believed to harbor US nuclear missiles on its soil.
Working with the UN, Turkey brokered a vital deal that allowed Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea to starving parts of the world.
Neyran Elden reported from Istanbul and Henry Austin from London.