Erdogan seeks to extend his term in the presidential runoff

ANKARA, Turkey — It’s one of the most closely contested presidential elections in recent memory, but at Arjantin İlkokulu Elementary School in Turkey’s capital Ankara, the atmosphere was calm, orderly and calm.

There was no shoving or shoving as voters waited in short lines to decide whether the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, extends his rule to a third decade or is ousted by challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has vowed to restore a more democratic society. Continuity or change?

«I hope it’s good for Turkey,» said geologist Salami Toprak, 67, shortly after voting. «Let’s see what comes out.» He added that he was thinking of the next generation as he cast his vote.

Closely watched from Washington and Kiev to Moscow and Beijing, the runoff in the Turkish Republic’s centenary year comes after neither candidate was able to get more than 50% of the vote in the first ballot on May 14. , Erdoğan fell short by a minuscule amount.

Kilicdaroglu, 74, described the runoff as a referendum on the future of the country. The leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010 is a markedly different figure from Erdoğan, who is known for his bombastic speeches. Soft-spoken, he has a reputation as a bridge builder.

In addition to returning the country to parliamentary democracy, Kilicdaroglu and the alliance vowed to establish the independence of the judiciary and central bank, institute checks and balances, and reverse democratic rollback and the crackdown on free speech and dissent.

Ballot papers for the Turkish presidential election at the Arjantin İlkokulu primary school in the Turkish capital Ankara. Paul Goldman/NBC News

But Erdoğan is the favorite to win, after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) retained a majority in parliament in elections earlier this month.

Initially, however, he had lagged behind in opinion polls during a campaign dominated by the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people earlier this year and the country’s economic crisis.

Erdoğan raised salaries and pensions ahead of the first round of elections and subsidized electricity and gas costs in an attempt to appeal to voters who have faced a sharp currency and cost-of-living crisis precipitated by numerous cuts in tariffs by the government in an attempt to boost exports.

Immigration has also been high on the agenda and both candidates have sought to bolster their nationalist credentials ahead of the runoff.

Before the first vote, Kilicdaroglu said he intended to repatriate the refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return. But he has since hardened his stance and vowed to send all the refugees home once he is elected president.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan courted and won the endorsement of nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, the former academic who was endorsed for president by an anti-immigrant party but was eliminated after finishing third in the first round of voting. On the campaign trail, Ogan said he would consider forcibly sending migrants back if necessary.

While the economy and migration were important issues, «Erdoğan managed to securitize the elections and convinced his base that national security was at stake,» said Dimitar Bechev, a professor on Turkey at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, author from “Turkey under Erdogan. He” He added that “identity politics revolving around ethnicity and religion” had determined much of the allocation of votes.

The results will also have myriad ramifications outside of Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the US, controls the crucial Bosphorus Strait and is believed to host US nuclear missiles on its soil.

Despite being a member of NATO, the country has maintained close ties with Russia and has blocked Sweden’s entry into the Western military alliance.

An Erdoğan victory would likely deepen the country’s relationship with Moscow, according to Nilgun Arisan Eralp, director of the Center for EU studies at Turkey’s Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara.

“Given the dire straits the economy is in, Russian money is going to be needed for the regime to continue,” Eralp said, adding that it is likely to continue to reject Swedish NATO membership, damaging relations with the United States and attracting to the country. closer to the Kremlin.

Ankara has long accused Sweden of harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is a designated terror group in Turkey, Sweden and the United States.

Before the vote, Ergun Yayla, an Istanbul taxi driver, said on Saturday that he planned to vote for Erdogan.

“I think a political change could be good in our country, but I think there is no one else who is honest and who can succeed,” said Yayla, 55.

«The opposition is very weak and will never win.»

Matt Bradley and Paul Goldman reported from Ankara. Leila Sackur reported from London.

neyran elden contributed.