Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave flags outside the AK Party headquarters after the polls closed in Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in Ankara, Turkey on May 15, 2023.

Adem Altan | Afp | Getty Images

Turkey’s presidential election is heading for a runoff, Turkey’s top election board confirmed on Monday, as neither 20-year incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu secured an outright victory after Sunday’s vote.

A candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote to win the highly charged race. Since no one passed that threshold, the vote will go to a runoff in about two weeks, on May 28.

With a battered economy, tensions over relations with Russia and NATO, and fears of a possible slide toward authoritarianism, the election in the sharply divided country of 85 million people could hardly come at a more crucial time.

More than 99% of the votes have been counted as of Monday afternoon local time, the election board said. Erdogan is leading with 49.46% of the vote while Kilicdaroglu, who has promised to bring about change and economic reforms, has 44.79%, according to Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council (YSK).

AK Member of Parliament

Erdogan, 69, and his conservative, Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) are confident. “We are confident that we will continue to serve our nation for the next five years,” he told crowds of supporters late Sunday night.

Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu, 74, who represents a united front of six different opposition parties all seeking to oust Erdogan, vowed to win the election in a second round of voting.

“Despite all his slander and insults, Erdogan could not get the result he expected. The election cannot be won on the balcony. The data is still coming in,” Kilicdaroglu said late Sunday night.

Economic crisis, geopolitical tensions

The conservative, religious and nationalist Erdogan was Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and president from 2014 onwards. He came to prominence as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s and was praised in the first decade of the new millennium for bringing Turkey to prominence as an emerging market economic powerhouse.

But recent years have been far more challenging for the religiously conservative leader, whose own economic policies sparked a cost-of-living crisis that has seen Turks struggle to afford basic goods.

Turkey's choice is one

Tensions between Turkey and the West are rising, with both international and domestic voices criticizing Erdogan’s government for implementing increasingly autocratic policies such as heavy-handed crackdowns on protesters, forced shutdowns of independent media and dramatic expansions of presidential power.

“It’s a moment of high anxiety,” one political analyst told CNBC, as many in the country worry about the risk of violence or instability if the election results are contested by the losing candidate or their supporters.

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