ISTANBUL — A pivotal election between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu was thrown into chaos late Sunday after Kilicdaroglu accused his opponents of obstructing the vote and Erdogan expressed confidence that he would ultimately prevail.
“We will not allow this to be a fait accompli. Stop messing around with perception management.”
Vote tallies carried by two news agencies Sunday — one state-run, the other aligned with the opposition — suggested that the race remained tight, with a few percentage points separating the candidates and Erdogan in the lead. Neither had passed the 50 percent threshold required to claim victory outright, according to the tallies, results that, if confirmed by the country’s election board, would trigger a runoff between the two men on May 28.
The bitter arguments over the election underscored opposition fears that Erdogan, who wields control over Turkey’s state institutions and most of its media outlets, would deploy every tool at his disposal to stay in power.
Erdogan, in a speech to supporters in Ankara in the early hours Monday, said that results from the election were not final but that he was in the lead and expected to win in the first round. Whatever the result, he added, “We are going to respect the national will.”
The election was the toughest test to date for Erdogan, Turkey’s most successful politician in generations and its leader for two decades. He has been blamed for an economic crisis that has battered Turkish households. And Turks are still recovering from catastrophic earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people and that exposed government lapses — in the enforcement of building codes and in rescue efforts that the president has conceded were tardy, with fatal consequences.
The race was being closely watched around the world. Kilicdaroglu has promised to usher Turkey, a NATO member, into a new era by revitalizing democracy after years of government repression and refreshing ties with Turkey’s estranged allies in the West.
Erdogan’s campaign focused on strides he said Turkey made under his rule, as a country modernized by megaprojects such as bridges and airports and an independent global power that produced its own military weapons. He also savagely attacked the opposition, claiming they were backed by “terrorist” groups, in what analysts said was a sign of desperation as he flirted with defeat for the first time in years.
As of late Sunday, neither campaign had confirmed that the race was headed to a runoff, with votes yet to count. Ahmet Yener, chairman of Turkey’s Supreme Election Board, suggested many votes had not been tallied, telling journalists Sunday evening that “currently, 69.12 percent of the ballot boxes have been opened.”
Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara and a surrogate for Kilicdaroglu, said that while there was a “high probability” Kilicdaroglu had won the first round, there was also a “high probability” of a runoff. Both campaigns urged their supporters to zealously guard the ballot boxes and ensure the integrity of the vote.
A third presidential candidate, Sinan Ogan, an ultranationalist, claimed at least 5 percent of the vote, according to the preliminary tallies — a result that provided him with leverage over the remaining candidates should there be a runoff. Ogan, the leader of the Ata (Ancestor) Alliance, a group of four small right-wing groups, has campaigned in large part on an anti-immigrant platform and has advocated sending millions of Syrian refugees back to their country, potentially by force.
Long lines were seen at polling stations in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, where Erdogan voted Sunday morning. Kilicdaroglu cast his ballot in Ankara. High turnout was reported around the country.
Outside a polling station in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kurtulus early Sunday, Garip Cicek, a 48-year-old security guard, said he was waiting “impatiently” for the evening’s results. “It’s important for my nation,” he said. He was voting for Erdogan, he said, because he supported the president’s development of the defense industry.
“This is a matter of pride,” he said. During Erdogan’s 20 years in power, he added, “many things” had been accomplished, including the recent unveiling of the first domestically produced electric car.
“The result is clear,” he said, predicting an Erdogan win. “With God’s will, we can stay where we are.”
Another voter in the neighborhood was just as convinced that Kilicdaroglu would prevail and that Turkey could not remain as it was. “I haven’t felt this excited or happy in such a long time,” said Ayse Kolikpinar, 33.
Sunday’s vote was like a “referendum” for Turkey, she said: “Either we choose the Republic or a one-man regime.”
The trauma of the earthquakes in Turkey and neighboring Syria ensured a subdued run-up to the election, as Erdogan toured a string of devastated cities, asking for forgiveness and pledging to rebuild. Then his tone shifted, as polls showed the race was too close to call or that he was trailing.
On Saturday, Erdogan accused the United States of trying to interfere in the election. “Biden instructed, ‘We need to bring down Erdogan,’” he said during a speech in Istanbul. “Tomorrow, the ballot boxes will give Biden an answer, as well.”
Erdogan, who rose to power as an Islamist politician, commands a loyal base of supporters, including Muslim conservatives whose rights and place in public life he has championed. Several years ago, Erdogan struck an alliance with a far-right party, ensuring his political survival.
Erdogan ended his campaign Saturday night with prayers at the Hagia Sophia, the Istanbul landmark that Erdogan converted in 2020 from a museum into a mosque, to the delight of his pious supporters.
During the campaign, Kilicdaroglu, a soft-spoken former bureaucrat who lacks Erdogan’s charisma, delivered his messages of change to Turkey’s public through videos posted on Twitter and other social media platforms to evade the government’s stranglehold on the news media. On Thursday, a third-party candidate, Muharrem Ince, withdrew from the election, potentially providing a further boost to Kilicdaroglu.
Days before the election, Erdogan addressed fears over whether he would accept the results.
“This is a very silly question,” the president said in a nationally televised interview with journalists Friday. “We came to power in Turkey through a democratic way. We came to power with the trust of our people. Just as we came to power with the favor of our people, that is, if our nation makes a different decision, we will do exactly that, whatever the necessity of democracy. There is nothing else to do.”
The string of cities in southern Turkey crushed by the earthquakes were being closely watched Sunday for indications of voter turnout, in a region where hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. In Antakya, one of Turkey’s most devastated cities, a 62-year-old contractor returned with his family to vote Sunday, driving from the coastal Mediterranean city of Mersin, about three hours away, where they had found temporary shelter.
In Antakya’s Elektrik neighborhood, the contractor, Mehmet, stopped at the site of his former apartment building and began searching what remained of the rubble. He said he had reinforced the foundation of the building himself. It had withstood the earthquakes but was left uninhabitable after neighboring buildings fell onto it.
Immediately after the earthquakes, the family applied to stay in a tent or container nearby, but Mehmet — who declined to give his last name for fear of the current political climate — said nothing came of it. “For the past three months, we’ve been ruined, and nobody has reached out to us,” he said.
He and his family members — including his 87-year-old diabetic mother and his wife, who has a debilitating hormonal disorder called Addison’s disease — eventually found shelter in the home of a friend in Mersin. But Mehmet described the arrangement as temporary and doesn’t know what comes after. It’s hard, he said, to “see a future for myself.”
Mehmet called the earthquake relief effort in Antakya a missed opportunity for Erdogan. “If he really reached out to us, he could have won the people’s hearts here, but he didn’t,” Mehmet said. “If you try to heal people’s wounds, if you reach out to them in their time of need, people will embrace you. But if you treat people like they’re from the ‘other’ side, they’ll see you the same way, too.”
The family voted for Kilicdaroglu.
Oztaskin reported from Antakya, Turkey.