Turkey’s presidential election appeared to be headed for a second round on Mondaywith the president Recep Tayyip Erdoganwho has ruled his country with a firm grip for 20 years, leading his main challenger, but who does not have the votes needed for an outright victory.

With 99.4% of domestic votes and 84% of foreign votes counted, Erdogan had 49.4% of the vote, and his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, got 45%, Ahmet Yener, the head of the Supreme Election Commission, told reporters. A third candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan received 5.2%.

Erdogan, 69, told supporters early Monday that he could still win. However, he said he would respect the nation’s decision if the race went to a runoff on May 28.

The vote was closely watched to see whether the strategically located Nato country – which has a Black Sea coast to the north and neighbors Iran, Iraq and Syria to the south – remains under the control of the increasingly authoritarian president or can embark on a more democratic course as Kilicdaroglu envisioned.

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Opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s vote had given Kilicdaroglu, the joint candidate of a six-party opposition alliance, a slight lead over Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003.

Kilicdaroglu sounded hopeful of victory in the second round.

“We will absolutely win the second round … and bring democracy,” Kilicdaroglu, 74, said, arguing that Erdogan had lost faith in a nation that was now demanding change.

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Ogan has not said who he would support if the election goes to a runoff. He is believed to have received support from voters who wanted change after two decades under Erdogan but were unconvinced by the Kilicdaroglu-led six-party alliance’s ability to govern.

The election results showed Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party was also set to retain its majority in the 600-seat parliament, although the assembly has lost much of its legislative power following a referendum to change the country’s system of government to an executive presidency. approved in 2017.

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Anadolu news agency said Erdogan’s ruling party alliance was hovering around 49.3%, while Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance had around 35.2% and support for a pro-Kurdish party was above 10%.

The fact that Erdogan appears to have held on to his majority boosts his chances of winning a runoff vote, with more voters likely to back Erdogan to avoid a divided legislature.

This year’s election came amid a backdrop of economic turmoil, a cost-of-living crisis and an earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people. Western nations and foreign investors are also awaiting the outcome due to Erdogan’s unorthodox management of the economy and often mercurial but successful efforts to put Turkey at the center of international negotiations.

As in previous years, Erdogan ran a highly divisive campaign in his bid to extend his rule into a third decade. He portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who had been backed by the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as collaborating with “terrorists” and for supporting what he called “deviant” LGBT rights. In an effort to woo voters hard-hit by inflation, he raised wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s home-grown defense industry and infrastructure projects.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with supporters at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, May 14, 2023.

DHA via AP

Kilicdaroglu, for his part, campaigned on promises to reverse crackdowns on free speech and other forms of democratic backsliding, as well as to repair an economy hit by high inflation and currency devaluation.

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“The fact that the election results have not been finalized does not change the fact that the nation has chosen us,” Erdogan said.

More than 64 million people, including the foreign voters, were eligible to vote and nearly 89% voted. This year marks 100 years since Turkey was established as a republic – a modern, secular state born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, despite the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech and assembly over the years and especially after an attempted coup in 2016. Erdogan blamed the failed coup on supporters of a former ally, the cleric Fethullah Gulen, and launched a large-scale crackdown on officials with alleged links to Gulen and against pro-Kurdish politicians.

Erdogan, along with the United Nations, helped broker an agreement with Ukraine and Russia that allowed Ukrainian grain to reach the rest of the world from Black Sea ports despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. The agreement, which is implemented by a center based in Istanbul, is due to expire in days, and Turkey hosted talks last week to keep it alive.

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But Erdogan has also held up Sweden’s bid to join NATO, arguing the nation has been too lenient with supporters of the US-based cleric and members of pro-Kurdish groups Turkey considers threats to national security.

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Critics argue that the president’s heavy-handed style is responsible for a painful cost-of-living crisis. The latest official statistics show inflation at around 44%, down from a peak of around 86%. The price of vegetables became a campaign issue for the opposition, which used an onion as a symbol.

Contrary to mainstream economic thinking, Erdogan argues that high interest rates drive inflation, and he pressured Turkey’s central bank to cut its main interest rate several times.

Erdogan’s government also came under fire for its allegedly delayed and hampered response to the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that left 11 southern provinces devastated. Lax implementation of building regulations is believed to have exacerbated casualties and misery.

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