Erdogan under pressure as Turkey heads to the polls after a divisive election campaign

The polls closed today in Turkey in a decisive election that could determine the future of the country. The generally calm and orderly voting day followed a tense campaign season marked by violence and divisive rhetoric.

Long lines formed at schools converted into polling stations. Turks normally vote in national elections in very high numbers, and today’s turnout seemed even higher than in previous votes.

Voters have cited concerns about the economy as the top issue driving their votes.

But also worrying is the country’s authoritarian drift under President Recep Tayyp Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dominated the country’s politics for more than 20 years.

“Without democracy and freedom, you can’t have any economy,” said Nil Adula, a 74-year-old voter at a polling station in central Istanbul.

“The most important thing is that the justice system is working properly.”

Polls show the opposition in a very strong position, with center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu set to beat Erdogan and possibly score a first-round victory that would avoid a divisive round on the 28th. of May.

Gen Z Turk Idris Sinan, 18, voted for the opposition in his first election

(Credit: Yusuf Sayman for The Independent)

Polls close at 5pm local time on Sunday, with results likely to be released several hours later. With a high turnout, the outcome will likely hinge on sections of undecided voters that include ethnic Kurds, who have traditionally voted for the AKP or left-wing parties, Turkish nationalists and at least 5 million first-time voters whose loyalties remain unclear.

Erdogan has had trouble connecting with Gen Z voters, who seem moved by his appeals to conservative and Islamic values.

“I see voting as a tool to change and influence the government from within,” said Idris Sinan, an 18-year-old high school student who is voting for the first time and wearing a nose ring as he leaves the polling station.

Opposition party official Cigdem Gulduval helps organize meals for poll workers during Turkey’s elections

(Yusuf Sayman/ The Independent)

“We have been ruled by this party, the AKP, for 20 years. We start our country, we become poorer and more lawless.”

Erdogan has also alienated ethnic Kurds, who used to vote for him in large numbers but, in a historic shift, have now embraced Kilicdaroglu’s secular center-left candidacy. “The election for us is about democracy and cultural and political rights,” said Mehmet Uzum, a 52-year-old Kurdish businessman from Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli district.

He said Erdogan and the AKP have become toxic to the Kurds since they partnered with the nationalist National Movement Party (MHP) a few years ago.

“We had a lot of friends who were AKP but then they switched to CHP because of the economy and all the religious talk,” said his daughter, Gizem, 22, a private company employee.

But many voters also rallied to vote for Erdogan, convinced by his call for nationalism and security, including his attempts to associate the opposition with the West and the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group.

“We are not for the United States. We are not in favor of the PKK,” said Faruk Baba, a 67-year-old clothing store owner in Istanbul’s Fatih district.

Turkish voters emerge from a polling station in the Fatih district of Istanbul.

(Yusuf Sayman/ The Independent)

When reminded that the Taliban in Afghanistan had backed Erdogan, he replied: “The Taliban are Muslims. We are Muslims.”

Among AKP supporters, many cited conspiracy theories launched by Erdogan in previous weeks that the opposition was being controlled by Western powers. Many seemed influenced by fake news and viral social media campaigns designed to portray the opposition in a negative light.

“Erdogan has stayed strong for us,” Ziya Uztok, 73, in Uskudar. “Kilicdaroglu is an American project.”

He showed a video on his phone that allegedly contained evidence of US documents leaked by the WikiLeaks collective showing that Kilicdaroglu was a foreign agent. Wikileaks has not published such documents.

“I accept Kilicdaroglu as a fellow citizen, but I would not vote for him,” he said.

But the country’s faltering economy threatens the steadfast support that conservative Turks have given Erdogan for years.

On a side street in Fatih, optimistic CHP organizers were stockpiling meals to hand out to their volunteers who were observing polling stations across the district.

“Before there were certain neighborhoods where we couldn’t go to campaign,” said Cigdem Gulduval, a local opposition party official.

Voters wait in line to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections

(Yusuf Sayman/The Independent)

“Now they are more receptive. They are all paying high prices at the same butchers as us. Everyone is paying the same gas bills. They will have to wait three or four months to get an appointment with the doctors.”

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