Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was locked in a tight election race early on Monday, with a make-or-break run-off against his challenger possible as the final votes were counted.
The results, whether they come within days or after a second round of voting takes place in two weeks, will determine if a Nato ally that straddles Europe and Asia but borders Syria and Iran remains under Mr Erdogan’s control or resumes the more democratic path promised by his main rival, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Speaking to supporters in Ankara, Mr Erdogan, 69, said he could still win but would respect the nation’s decision if the race went to a run-off vote in two weeks.
“We don’t yet know if the elections ended in the first round… If our nation has chosen for a second round, that is also welcome,” Mr Erdogan said, noting that votes from Turkish citizens living abroad still need to be tallied.
This year’s election largely centred on domestic issues such as the economy, civil rights and a February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.
But western nations and foreign investors also awaited the outcome because of Mr Erdogan’s unorthodox leadership of the economy and often mercurial but successful efforts to put Turkey at the centre of international negotiations.
With the unofficial count nearly completed, voter support for the incumbent had dipped below the majority required for him to win re-election outright.
Mr Erdogan had 49.3% of the vote, while Mr Kilicdaroglu, had 45%, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu.
“We will absolutely win the second round… and bring democracy,” Mr Kilicdaroglu, 74, the candidate of a six-party alliance said, arguing that Mr Erdogan had lost the trust of a nation now demanding change.
The majority of ballots from the 3.4 million eligible overseas voters still needed to be tallied, according to the board, and a May 28 run-off election was not assured.
Polls closed in the late afternoon after nine hours of voting in the national election that could grant Mr Erdogan, 69, another five-year term or see him unseated by Mr Kilicdaroglu, who campaigned on a promise to return Turkey to a more democratic path.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the winner will be determined in a May 28 run-off.
Voters also elected politicians to fill Turkey’s 600-seat parliament, which lost much of its legislative power under Mr Erdogan’s executive presidency.
The opposition has promised to return Turkey’s governance system to a parliamentary democracy if it wins both the presidential and parliamentary ballots.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote in the elections, which come the same year as the country will mark the centenary of its establishment as a republic — a modern, secular state born on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, reflecting citizens’ continued belief in democratic balloting.
The country is also reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake that caused devastation in 11 southern provinces in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings.
Mr Erdogan’s government has been criticised for its delayed and stunted response to the disaster, as well as a lax implementation of building codes that exacerbated the casualties and misery.
Internationally, the elections were being watched closely as a test of a united opposition’s ability to dislodge a leader who has concentrated nearly all state powers in his hands.