Turks voted in their country’s first presidential election on Sunday with Tayyip Erdogan poised to win and fulfill his dream of what he calls a “new Turkey” and what his opponents say will be an increasingly authoritarian nation.
A victory for Erdogan would seal his place in history after more than a decade as prime minister in which Turkey has emerged as a regional economic power, riding a wave of religiously conservative support to transform the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
But his critics warn that a President Erdogan, with his roots in political Islam and intolerance of dissent, would lead the NATO member and European Union candidate further away from Ataturk’s secular ideals.
In a tea house in the working-class Istanbul district of Tophane, men watching election coverage on television praised Erdogan as a pious man of the people who had boosted Turkey’s status both economically and on the international stage.
“Erdogan is on the side of the underdog. He is the defender against injustice. While the Arab world was silent, he spoke out against Israel on Gaza,” said Murat, 42, a jeweler, who declined to give his family name.
“This country was ruined by the old politicians. They lied to us. They caused economic crises, the PKK violence,” he said. Erdogan has opened a peace process with Kurdish PKK militants to end a conflict which has killed 40,000 people in 30 years.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0100 ET) with 53 million Turks eligible to vote. Voting ends at 5 p.m. (1000 ET). The voting turnout, which exceeded 89 percent in March local elections, appeared to be low, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observer George Tsereteli told reporters.
Opinion polls put Erdogan, 60, far ahead of two rivals competing for a five-year term as president. Parliament has in the past chosen the head of state but this was changed under a law pushed through by Erdogan’s government.
He has set his sights on serving two presidential terms, keeping him in power past 2023, the 100th anniversary of the secular republic. For a leader who refers frequently to Ottoman history in his speeches, the date has special significance.
A rapturous crowd cheered and chanted “Turkey is proud of you” and “President Erdogan” as he emerged from a school where he voted with his wife and children on the Asian side of Istanbul. He waved and shook people’s hands.
“The (voters’) decision will be crucial as an elected president and government will hand-in-hand carry our Turkey decisively towards 2023,” he told reporters.
In his final campaign speech in the conservative stronghold of Konya on Saturday, he said the election would herald a “new Turkey” and “a strong Turkey is rising again from the ashes”.
“Let’s leave the old Turkey behind. The politics of polarization, divisiveness and fear has passed its expiry date,” he told a crowd of thousands.
His vision of a new Turkey left voters cold at one polling station in the capital Ankara, where many complained of deep polarization under Erdogan and said only his AK Party loyalists had benefited from changes in the past decade.
“The freedom that he says has increased is for his own supporters. You can only be free if you support him. He has polarized this country in a way nobody has before,” said Yucel Duranoglu, 45, who works for a private company.
The prime minister has promised to exercise the full powers granted to him by current laws, unlike his predecessors who have played a mainly ceremonial role. But he also plans to change the constitution to establish a fully executive presidency.
The current constitution, written under military rule after a 1980 coup, would enable him to chair cabinet meetings and appoint the premier and members of top judicial bodies including the constitutional court and supreme council of judges.
Opinion polls put Erdogan’s support at 55-56 percent, giving him the majority he needed to win on Sunday. If there is no outright winner, a second round will be held on Aug. 24.
Surveys placed him some 20 points ahead of the main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish left-wing People’s Democratic Party, is seen winning just under 10 percent of the vote.
Ihsanoglu voted in a wealthy district of Istanbul near the Bosphorus strait while Demirtas cast his vote in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Erdogan was set to vote in Istanbul in the afternoon.
Erdogan’s ruling AK Party scored a clear victory in local elections in March and a triumph on Sunday would emphatically put an end to the toughest year of his time in power.
He was shaken by nationwide anti-government protests last summer, and months later, Erdogan and his inner circle were targeted by a corruption investigation and a power struggle with his former ally, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
He accuses Gulen of seeking to overthrow him and has pledged as president to continue purging institutions such as the police and judiciary where Gulen is believed to wield influence.
Despite the challenges Erdogan has faced, there was an air of resignation among many voters who oppose him.
“I am almost depressed. I worry for my country because I increasingly feel like an alien here. The prime minister is talking about a Turkey that I don’t recognize,” said Erkan Sonmez, 43, who works in an import-export business.
“I can no longer speak to my neighbors who vote for the AK Party, does that sound like a peaceful community to you?”