Turkey's Erdogan faces tough test in polls

A woman holding ballot papers and a stamp before voting in twin Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul yesterday. Over 56 million eligible voters were for the first time casting ballots in both elections.
A woman holding ballot papers and a stamp before voting in twin Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul yesterday. Over 56 million eligible voters were for the first time casting ballots in both elections.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Strong opposition challenge and economic woes have eroded popularity of President

ISTANBUL • Turks voted yesterday in dual parliamentary and presidential polls seen as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's toughest election test, with the opposition revitalised and his popularity at risk from growing economic troubles.

Over 56 million eligible voters were for the first time casting ballots in both elections, with Mr Erdogan looking for a first-round knockout and an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to extend his 15-year grip on power.

But both these goals are in doubt in the face of an energetic campaign by the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, who has rivalled Mr Erdogan's charisma and crowd-pulling on the campaign trail, and a strong opposition alliance in the legislative polls.

"I hope for the best for our nation," said Mr Ince as he cast his ballot in his native port town of Yalova, south of Istanbul, vowing to spend the night at the headquarters of Turkey's election authority in Ankara to ensure a fair count.

Voting in Istanbul along with his son-in-law and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, Mr Erdogan said he expected turnout to be strong in an indication of "how mature democracy is in Turkey".

The CHP said it had recorded violations, in particular in the south-eastern province of Sanliurfa.

Irregularities reported by the media ranged from alleged mass casting of ballots on behalf of others to blocking access to polling stations for officials of the CHP and pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). But Mr Erdogan insisted there was no major problem.

The vote will usher in a powerful new executive presidency long sought by Mr Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a referendum last year. Critics say it will further erode democracy 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."

"This is no longer a Turkey we want. Rights are violated, democracy is in terrible shape," said health-sector worker Sema, 50, after voting in Istanbul. She and others in the city said they voted for HDP so it can exceed the 10 per cent threshold of votes needed to enter Parliament. If it does so, it will be harder for the AKP to get a majority.

Mr 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 for polls one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.

Voting already closed last week for Turkish citizens resident abroad, with just under 1.5 million out of over three million registered voters casting their ballots, a turnout of just under 49 per cent.

High security was in place across the country, with 38,480 police officers on duty in Istanbul alone.

Voting began at 8am and ended at 5pm. Results were expected to start coming in at about 9pm in Turkey.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2018, with the headline 'Turkey's Erdogan faces tough test in polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe