ISTANBUL (REUTERS, AFP) - Voters in Turkey began voting on Sunday (June 24) for a new president and parliament in elections that pose the biggest ballot box challenge to Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party since they swept to power more than a decade and a half ago.
The elections will also usher in a powerful new executive presidency long sought by Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a 2017 referendum. Critics say it will further erode democracy in the NATO member state and entrench one-man rule.
“This stability must continue and that can happen with Erdogan so I voted for him,” said janitor Mehmet Yildirim, 48, in Istanbul.
“I also think that with Erdogan, we stand stronger against the West.”
More than 56 million people were registered to vote at 180,000 ballot boxes across Turkey.
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and were due to close at 1400 GMT, with the first results expected late in the evening.
Turkish voters will for the first time in history be voting simultaneously in parliamentary and presidential elections, with Erdogan looking for a first round knockout and an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
But both these goals are in doubt in the face of an energetic campaign by his rival from the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, who has mobilised hundreds of thousands in mega rallies, and a strong opposition alliance in the legislative polls.
'Far tighter than expected'
Erdogan remains the favourite to hold on to the presidency - even if he needs a second round on July 8 - but the outcome is likely to be much tighter than he expected when calling the snap polls one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.
Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his Islamic-rooted ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination. But critics accuse the Turkish strongman, 64, of trampling on civil liberties and displaying autocratic behaviour.
Analysts say the opposition's performance is all the more troubling for the authorities given how the campaign has been slanted in favour of Erdogan, who has dominated media airtime.
"Even if the odds are on the incumbent's side, the race is likely to be far tighter than many expected," said Ilke Toygur, analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and adjunct professor at University Carlos III in Madrid.
"Ince has shown in a very short time that a serious alternative could be emerging."
The stakes in this election are particularly high as the new president will be the first to enjoy enhanced powers under a new constitution agreed in a April 2017 referendum strongly backed by Erdogan.
Erdogan, whose mastery of political rhetoric is acknowledged even by critics, has won a dozen elections but is now fighting against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
Inflation has zoomed well into double digits - with popular concern over sharp rises in staples like potatoes and onions - while the Turkish lira has lost some 25 per cent in value against the US dollar this year.
Meanwhile, former physics teacher Ince built up a national following with lacerating attacks on Erdogan's rule, bringing up near-taboos like the AKP's past cooperation with the group of Fethullah Gulen blamed for the 2016 failed coup.
He mustered colossal numbers for rallies in the three largest cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul on the final days of the campaign, promising a "different Turkey".
"Ince's wit, audacity, ability to poke holes through Erdogan's narrative and connect with Turks beyond the traditional base of his secularist CHP has flustered Erdogan and his team," said Anthony Skinner, head of MENA at Verisk Maplecroft.
Erdogan has at times seemed on the back foot, making promises to lift the state of emergency imposed after the coup bid and ensuring the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey go home only after similar pledges by Ince.
The votes of Turkey's Kurdish minority will be especially crucial in the parliamentary poll. If the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) wins seats by polling over the 10 percent minimum threshold, the AKP will struggle to keep its overall majority.
But in a situation labelled as blatant unfairness by activists, the HDP's presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has campaigned from a prison cell after his November 2016 arrest on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish militants.
The opposition has also alleged heavy bias in favour of Erdogan by state media, with news channel TRT Haber not showing a single second of Ince's giant final Istanbul rally live.
The vote will be closely watched by the European Union - which Erdogan says he still wants Turkey to join despite the accession process grinding to a halt - and the United States which has seen no improvement in ties with its NATO ally under Donald Trump.
Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens are responding to calls from the opposition to monitor the polls for a clean election from the opening of polls at 0500 GMT to their close at 1400 GMT.
The results are expected to start coming in about 9 pm local time in Turkey.
A delegation of observers from the OSCE will also be in place.