Millions of Turks living abroad wrapped up voting on Tuesday, in a tight election that has turned into a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s polarizing two-decade rule, Agence France-Presse reported.
Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections will pass judgement on Turkey’s longest-serving leader and the social transformation spearheaded by his Islamic-rooted party.
The election is Turkey’s most consequential in generations and the toughest of the 69-year-old’s political career.
Polls show Erdoğan locked in a tight battle with secular rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his powerful alliance of six parties that span Turkey’s cultural and political divide.
The first votes were cast by Turks who moved from poorer provinces to Western Europe over the decades under job schemes aimed at combating the continent’s labor shortage in the wake of World War II.
These expatriates comprise 3.4 million of Turkey’s 64.1 million registered voters and tend to support more conservative candidates.
Official turnout on the morning of the last day of overseas voting on Tuesday was reported at 51 percent — lower than in past elections and a possible sign of worry for Erdoğan.
“I am here because Turkey is in quite a terrible situation right now,” Berliner Kutay Yılmaz said on the first day of voting in Germany late last month.
“I want to return [to Turkey] one day. That’s why I came here today and voted. I want the leader to change.”
‘Please stay calm’
The election has been accompanied by spates of violence that reflect the anger running through Turkey’s polarized society during its deepest economic crisis since the 1990s.
Dutch police said on Sunday they had to break up a “massive brawl involving some 300 people” at a polling station in Amsterdam.
Police in the French city of Marseille used tear gas to stop a similar fight between Erdoğan’s supporters and opponents last week.
That did not prevent a second brawl from erupting at the same Marseille polling station later in the day.
The French police made two arrests.
Tensions boiled over during a tour of Turkey’s conservative heartland on Sunday by İstanbul’s popular opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu.
Right-wing protesters pelted his campaign bus with rocks and bottles while he was trying to deliver a speech from its roof.
Turkey’s defense ministry said on Tuesday it had discharged an infantry sergeant pending an investigation into his involvement in the violence.
The incident prompted Kılıçdaroğlu — a 74-year-old former civil servant who wants to make İmamoğlu his vice president — to appeal for everyone to “Please, please stay calm.”
“We are going to an election and not to war,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in a televised interview.
Show of force
The tense atmosphere reflects the stakes for all sides.
The opposition casts the election as decisive for Turkey’s democratic future.
Erdoğan centralized power and unleashed sweeping purges in the second decade of his rule.
His courting of Russia and military incursions into Syria have also chilled his once-warm relations with the West.
But the Turkish leader still commands support among poorer and more religious voters, who remember corruption and hardship that blighted half a century of secular rule.
Erdoğan staged a show-of-force rally in Istanbul on Sunday that drew hundreds of thousands of fervent followers.
He announced a new 45 percent hike in wages for 700,000 state workers on Tuesday — the latest in a long line of such announcement during the campaign.
“He [Erdoğan] is now throwing the kitchen sink, the cooker, the fridge and the entire contents of the Turkish house at this election,” emerging markets economist Timothy Ash tweeted.