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Turkish voters speak on historic election day

Opposition candidate Muharrem Ince casts his vote on Sunday
Opposition candidate Muharrem Ince casts his vote on Sunday REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The sky was uncharacteristically grey over Istanbul on Sunday. But Turkish politics was anything but dull, with voters casting their ballots in presidential and parliamentary elections that could prove decisive for the country’s future.


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the elections early, hoping that they will give popular endorsement of his domination of the country’s political life.

But, after a narrow win in last year’s referendum on creating an executive presidency, his bid for reelection has faced an unexpectedly stiff challenge from Muharrem Ince.

Ince, who is standing for the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), staged massive rallies in the country’s three biggest cities on the last three days of campaigning.

Erdogan devoted Friday and Saturday to a tour of Istanbul districts, showing that he, too, has an enthusiastic fan-base.

AKP supporters listen to Erdogan at a rally in an Istanbul district on Satrurday
AKP supporters listen to Erdogan at a rally in an Istanbul district on Satrurday Tony Cross/RFI

Graphic designer Erdogan Kivirciksacli is among them.

“I think Erdogan is the best person to fight terrorism and do good for our country,” he said after casting his vote in Istanbul’s Sisli district. “There is much to be done, the peace process, the fight against terrorism.”

The “terrorism” Kivirciksacli has in mind is not so much bombings by the Islamic State armed group as the long-running guerrilla war of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), mainly in the Kurdish-majority south-east of the country.

Inflation, exchange rate, unemployment

Economic problems are the apparent reason for the AKP’s fall in the opinion polls today.

Inflation is at 12 percent, the lira has slumped on the money markets, interest rates have been hiked, and, despite growth of 7.5 percent, unemployment remains high.

That is not Erdogan’s fault, according to Kivirciksacli.

“It’s not just limited to Turkey. It depends on the world economy, the rise of the dollar, the euro,” he argues. “When you look at Turkey’s economy you can see a growth rate of five percent, six percent. Compared to most European countries, Turkey is in a much better condition.”

The president’s critics also accuse him of becoming increasingly authoritarian.

The election itself has been affected by a clampdown on the media, with the AKP receiving more air time and column inches than the whole opposition put together.

And a state of emergency imposed after 2016’s coup attempt has seen thousands fired from their jobs or jailed, with one presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), conducting his campaign from a high-security prison cell.

The judiciary and police have also been purged.

“How can the election be free with a state of emergency?” asks CHP activist Cetin Ercan.

A number of voters seem reluctant to say who they have voted for and, while she cheerfully declares her support for Ince, student Didem Arzu Ozay, does not want to say much about the president himself.

“I don’t want to speak about him. Because it’s dangerous, actually, in Turkey. It’s dangerous and not necessary for me anymore, for us, for young people because everything is so clear, what he does, what he will do. I don’t need to talk about him.”

CHP + HDP combo

At another polling station nearby, teacher Berk Kavas has also voted for Ince.

“I believe that Muharrem Ince is fresh blood and it’s going to be great for Turkey,” he declares. “You know, Turkey needs that. We need more democracy in Turkey.”

But, like several younger voters we speak to, he is voting for Demirtas’s party in the parliamentary election.

The HDP is a Kurdish-based left-wing party and Kavas believes it is important to give the country’s largest minority group a voice in parliament.

“I studied in the US, so I saw the different kinds of people in parliament. So it’s kind of a rule. It’s a new way,” he says.

According to Turkey’s electoral law, a party must win 10 percent of the votes to have any representation in parliament.

So some opposition voters reportedly calculated that a vote for the HDP would increase the number of parties in parliament and help deprive the AKP of a majority there, even if it wins the presidential race.

In another part of the city, Besiktas, computing sector manager Engin Dize describes himself as a socialist and “close to the HDP”.

But he is voting Ince for president, believing him to be Erdogan’s best-placed opponent, while backing the smaller party for parliament.

“Turkey is being managed by a kind of dictatorship regime,” he claims. “Especially in the south-east of Turkey we think that there will be many illegal issues by the government and government-supported paramilitary powers in order to prevent Kurdish people going to vote for their party.”

He thinks Ince will force Erdogan to face a second round and could win there.

But he fears that the incumbent, may not go quietly.

“We believe from our experience that he will do everything in order to not lose power. He knows that if he loses power he can be judged with all the crimes that he did up to now.”

Other presidential candidates

There are three other presidential candidates – Meral Aksener of the Iyi (Good) Party, Temel Karamollaoglu of the Islamist Saadat (Felicity) party and Dogu Perincek of the left-nationalist Vatan (Patriotic) Party.

None of their supporters were much in evidence on our tour of the polling stations, although Iyi official Rasim Bostancioglu assured us the party would be getting a good vote, while one supporter, Tahsih Serhan Gurel, said that, if elected, her most Aksener’s most important task would be to clean up the justice system.

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