Turkish polling stations closed Sunday in a pivotal election that could end President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-decade grip on power and put the mostly Muslim nation on a more secular course, Agence France-Presse reported.
Turnout was expected to be huge in what has effectively become a referendum on Turkey’s longest-serving leader and his Islamic-rooted party.
It is the toughest of more than a dozen elections the 69-year-old leader has competed in — one that polls hint he might lose.
“We need change, we’ve had enough,” farmer Mehmet Topaloğlu told AFP after voting amid the ruins left by a deadly February earthquake that razed the ancient city of Antakya and other parts of the southeast.
Erdoğan has steered the nation of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras in the post-Ottoman state’s 100-year history.
Turkey has grown into a military and geopolitical heavyweight that plays roles in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine.
The NATO member’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East makes the election’s outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.
Erdoğan is lionized across swathes of conservative Turkey that witnessed a development boom during his rule.
More religious voters are also grateful for his decision to lift secular-era restrictions on headscarves and introduce more Islamic schools.
“My hope to God is that after the counting concludes this evening, the outcome is good for the future of our country, for Turkish democracy,” Erdoğan said after casting his ballot in Istanbul.
‘We all miss democracy’
Erdoğan’s first decade of economic revival and warming relations with Europe was followed by a second one filled with social and political turmoil.
He responded to a failed 2016 coup attempt with sweeping purges that sent chills through Turkish society and made him an increasingly uncomfortable partner for the West.
The emergence of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his six-party opposition alliance — a group that forms the type of broad-based coalition that Erdoğan excelled at forging throughout his career — gives foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative.
Polls suggest the 74-year-old secular leader is within touching distance of breaking the 50-percent threshold needed to win in the first round.
A runoff on May 28 could give Erdoğan time to regroup and reframe the debate.
But he would still be hounded by Turkey’s most dire economic crisis of his time in power, and disquiet over his government’s stuttering response to the earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
“We all missed democracy,” Kılıçdaroğlu said after voting in the capital Ankara. “You will see, God willing, spring will come to this country.”
High turnout among the country’s 64 million registered voters is widely expected.
Opposition figures said some ballot boxes in Istanbul were already full by mid-afternoon Sunday.
The last national election saw Erdoğan win 52.5 percent on a turnout of more than 86 percent.