Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan take part in a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections in Istanbul, Turkey on May 12, 2023.

Dilara Senkaya | Reuters

Turkey appears to be heading for a presidential runoff, with Tayyip Erdogan’s parties and opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu taking the lead. However, sources in both camps admit they may not clear the 50% threshold to win outright.

Early results put Erdogan comfortably ahead, but as the count continued his advantage eroded, with a May 28 runoff beckoning.

Both sides dismissed the other side’s bill, with no official result announced. Ankara’s opposition mayor Mansur Yavas said a count by his party showed Kilicdaroglu ahead with 47.42%, while Erdogan had 46.48%.

Pre-election opinion polls had given Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slim lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50 percent mark.

A senior official from the opposition alliance, who asked not to be named, said “there doesn’t seem to be a winner in the first round. But our data suggests that Kilicdaroglu will lead.”

Citing figures from the state-run Anadolu agency, Turkish media said that with nearly 75% of ballot boxes counted, Erdogan had 50.83% and Kilicdaroglu on 43.36%.

Sunday’s vote is one of the most consequential elections in the country’s 100-year history, a contest that could end Erdogan’s impressive 20-year rule and reverberate far beyond Turkey’s borders.

The presidential vote will determine not only who leads Turkey, a NATO member country of 85 million, but also how the country is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost-of-living crisis and the shape of its foreign policy.

The election, which is also for parliament, is being closely watched in Western capitals, the Middle East, NATO and Moscow.

A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most important allies, is likely to deter the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had uneasy relations with Erdogan.

Turkey’s longest-serving leader has transformed the NATO member and Europe’s second-largest country into a global player, modernizing it through megaprojects such as new bridges, hospitals and airports and building a military industry sought after by foreign states.

But his volatile low-interest rate economic policies, which set off a spiraling cost-of-living crisis and inflation, made him the victim of voter anger.

His government’s slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to the consternation of voters.

Kilicdaroglu has promised to set Turkey on a new course by reviving democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, strengthening institutions that lost autonomy under Erdogan’s tight grip and rebuilding weak ties with the West.

Thousands of political prisoners and activists, including high-level names such as Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala, could be released if the opposition wins.

Polarized politics

“I see these elections as a choice between democracy and dictatorship,” Ahmet Kalkan, 64, said as he voted in Istanbul for Kilicdaroglu, echoing critics who fear Erdogan will rule increasingly autocratically if he wins.

Who will be the next president of Turkey?

“I chose democracy and I hope my country chooses democracy,” said Kalkan, a retired health worker.

Erdogan, 69, a veteran of a dozen election victories, says he respects democracy and denies he is a dictator.

Mehmet Akif Kahraman, who also voted in Istanbul, illustrated how the president still enjoys support, saying Erdogan still represented the future even after two decades in power.

“God willing, Turkey will become a world leader,” he said.

The parliamentary vote is a race between the People’s Alliance, made up of Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party (AKP) and the nationalist MHP and others, and Kilicdaroglu’s Nation Alliance formed by six opposition parties, including his secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), established by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

With 62% of ballot boxes counted, HaberTurk put Erdogan’s alliance at 52% and the opposition alliance at 33% in the parliamentary vote.

Change or continuity

A powerful speaker and master campaigner, Erdogan has pulled out all the stops on the campaign trail. He commands fierce loyalty from pious Turks who once felt disenfranchised in secular Turkey, and his political career has survived an attempted coup in 2016 and numerous corruption scandals.

But if the Turks oust Erdogan, it will be largely because they saw their wealth and ability to meet basic needs decline, with inflation topping 85% in October 2022 and a collapse in the lira.

Erdogan has taken tight control of most of Turkey’s institutions, sidelining liberals and critics. Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2022 that Erdogan’s government has set back Turkey’s human rights record by decades.

Kurdish voters, who account for 15-20% of the electorate, will play an important role, and the Nation Alliance is unlikely to achieve a parliamentary majority on its own.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is not part of the main opposition alliance but fiercely opposes Erdogan after a crackdown on its members in recent years.