Turkey’s presidential candidates made their final pleas to voters on Saturday, the day before tens of millions of Turks are expected to cast ballots to pick their next president, making a critical choice between the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his challenger, the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Mr. Erdogan’s schedule included a visit to the grave of a former prime minister who was hanged during a military junta in 1961 and an address to his own supporters in Istanbul. Mr. Kilicdaroglu was scheduled to lay out his plans to financially support struggling families in a meeting with voters in the capital, Ankara. Pre-recorded addresses by both men were scheduled to air on TRT, the state-run broadcaster.
Neither candidate surpassed the 50 percent of votes needed for an outright win in the first round of the election, on May 14, prompting Sunday’s runoff.
In the time since, they have campaigned fiercely. Mr. Erdogan, 69, has held multiple events per day to characterize his rival as weak and incompetent. Mr. Kilicdaroglu, 74, has worked to increase turnout by younger voters and to court ultranationalists by taking a harder line on refugees, vowing to deport millions of them in the next year.
Mr. Erdogan has led Turkey since 2003, when he became prime minister. Initially, he was widely hailed as an Islamist democrat who promised to make the predominantly Muslim country and NATO member a bridge between the Muslim world and the West. More recently, critics have accused him of pushing Turkey toward one-man rule and exacerbating a cost-of-living crisis.
After the first round, Mr. Erdogan, who has long staved off challengers with a fiery populist style, appears to be in a strong position to win another five-year term.
Nonetheless, he is facing competition from a newly unified opposition that has appealed to voters’ disillusionment with his stewardship of the economy and what they call his autocratic tendencies. They are backing Mr. Kilicdaroglu, a retired civil servant who has vowed to strengthen Turkish democracy and improve ties with the West.
What’s at stake?
The runoff election will be watched around the world for how it could shape the future of Turkey, one of the world’s 20 largest economies and a NATO ally of the United States. The outcome will echo far beyond Turkey’s borders.
At the top of voters’ concerns is the economy. The national currency has lost 80 percent of its value against the dollar since the last election in 2018. Annual inflation, which surpassed 80 percent at its peak last year, was down to 44 percent last month but remains stubbornly high, leaving many Turks feeling poorer.
Also looming over the vote are the catastrophic earthquakes in February that left more than 50,000 people dead. The government, which has been criticized by some for its initially slow response to the natural disaster, has estimated that the quake damage amounts to $103 billion, or about 9 percent of this year’s economic output. The crisis has also raised questions about whether the government bore some responsibility for a raft of shoddy construction projects in recent years that contributed to the high death toll.
The election outcome could also affect Turkey’s geopolitical position. The country’s relations with the United States and other NATO allies have been strained as Mr. Erdogan has strengthened ties with Russia, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, and hampered the alliance’s efforts to expand.
When Mr. Erdogan became prime minister, many Turks saw him as a dynamic figure who promised a bright economic future. And for many years his government delivered. Incomes rose, lifting millions of Turks into the middle class as new airports, roads and hospitals were built across the country. He also reduced the power of the country’s secular elite and tamed the military, which had held great sway since Turkey’s founding in 1923.
But in recent years, especially since he became president in 2014, critics have accused Mr. Erdogan of using the democratic process to enhance his powers, pushing the country toward autocracy.
All along, Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party remained a force at the ballot box, winning elections and passing referendums that allowed him to seize even more power, largely with the support of voters who tended to be working-class, religiously conservative and from smaller Turkish cities away from the coasts.
But economic trouble began after 2013. The value of the national currency eroded, foreign investors fled and, more recently, inflation spiked.
A skillful politician and formidable orator, Mr. Erdogan earned a reputation for taking advantage of crises to consolidate his power. After an attempted coup in 2016, his government jailed tens of thousands of people accused of belonging to the religious movement formerly allied with Mr. Erdogan that the government accused of cooking up the plot to oust him. More than 100,000 others were purged from state jobs.
Who is the opponent?
The opposition candidate, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, built his campaign in opposition not only to Erdogan’s polices, but also to his brash style. Mr. Kilicdaroglu received 44.9 percent of votes in the first round versus 49.5 percent for Mr. Erdogan.
In his initial campaign, Mr. Kilicdaroglu fashioned himself as a steady Everyman. But after far-right nationalist politicians did better than expected in the first round, he adopted tougher stances, accepting the endorsement of an ultranationalist and vowing to swiftly deport refugees from Syria and other countries.
Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and its allies also made a strong showing in the parliamentary vote, which has helped the president’s case to voters that they should support a unified government in the coming weeks.
The candidate who came in third in the presidential election, Sinan Ogan, has endorsed Mr. Erdogan in the runoff, which will probably give the president an additional boost.
Were these elections free and fair?
The turnout in the first round of voting was extremely high, over 80 percent of the 64 million eligible voters in Turkey and overseas, according to Turkey’s election council.
As the results from the first round poured in, Mr. Erdogan told supporters that he was prepared to face a runoff, assuring voters he that had “always respected” the decision of the people and that he expected “the same democratic maturity from everyone.” But as in previous elections, Mr. Erdogan had used his expanded presidential powers to tilt the playing field in his favor.
In recent months, he has increased the minimum wage, bolstered civil servant salaries, increased assistance to poorer families and changed regulations to allow millions of Turks to receive their government pensions earlier, all to insulate voters from the effects of rising prices.
In December, a judge believed to be acting in support of Mr. Erdogan barred the mayor of Istanbul, a potential presidential challenger at the time, from politics after convicting him of insulting public officials. The mayor has remained in office pending appeal.
This would not be the first time that potential opponents of Mr. Erdogan have been sidelined.
Selahattin Demirtas, of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, ran his presidential campaign from prison in 2018. The Turkish authorities have accused him of affiliation with a terrorist organization. Rights organizations have called his imprisonment politically motivated.
Turkey has fought a decades-long battle with Kurdish militants whom Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider terrorists.
The Turkish news media, which is largely controlled by private companies close to Mr. Erdogan, has given Mr. Erdogan much more airtime than the other candidates while avoiding cost-of-living issues and trumpeting his response to the earthquake crisis as heroic.
The runoff is scheduled for Sunday. Polls close at 5 p.m. local time, and results are expected a few hours later.