Turks voted Sunday in their first direct presidential election, a watershed event in the country\’s 91-year history that could cement Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan\’s position as Turkey\’s all-powerful leader.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is the strong front-runner to replace incumbent Abdullah Gul for a five-year term.
Now in his third term as prime minister at the head of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Erdogan has been a polarizing figure. He is fervently supported by many as a man of the people who has led Turkey through a period of economic prosperity. Yet critics view him as an increasingly autocratic leader bent on concentrating power and imposing his religious and conservative views on a country founded on strong secular traditions.
After a bitter and divisive pre-election campaign, Erdogan sounded more conciliatory in his final campaign speech Saturday, promising to "leave the old Turkey behind."
"This country of 77 million is our country, there is no discrimination," he said. "We own this country all together."
Some 53 million people are eligible to vote; an absolute majority is needed to win. Otherwise, the top two candidates go to a runoff on Aug. 24. Erdogan, whose party won local elections in March with about 43 percent of the vote, is widely expected to be elected, although it is unclear if he can avoid a runoff.
Party rules barred Erdogan from serving another term as prime minister. Turkish presidents used to be elected by parliament but Erdogan\’s government pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2007, changing the procedure to a popular vote.
Previously a ceremonial role, Erdogan has vowed to transform the presidency into a powerful position — something his detractors point to as proof he is bent on a power grab. He has said he will activate the post\’s rarely used dormant powers — a legacy of a 1980 coup — including the ability to call parliament and summon and preside over Cabinet meetings.
Erdogan\’s main challenger is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old academic and former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation who is backed by several opposition parties, including the two main ones: a pro-secular party and a nationalist one.
Ihsanoglu, whose campaign has focused on a message of unity, said some irregularities had been reported in early voting Sunday, with some voters photographing their stamped ballots with their mobile phones. The implication is they would use the photos to prove which party they voted for and receive favors in return.
An official complaint would be filed, Ihsanoglu said.
"The eyes of the whole world are upon us," he said after voting in Istanbul. "(Turkey) has been striving to become a first-class democracy … and hopefully Turkey will achieve this today."
The third presidential candidate is Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, 41, a rising star on the minority Kurdish political scene.
The past year-and-a-half has been a turbulent one for Erdogan, who faced widespread anti-government protests in 2013 triggered by a violent police crackdown on demonstrators objecting to a construction plan in central Istanbul.
More anti-government protests erupted in May after 301 miners died in a Turkish mine fire blamed on shoddy safety practices. Erdogan and his son have also been implicated in a corruption scandal that he has dismissed as a coup plot by a moderate Islamic preacher and former ally living in the United States, Fethullah Gulen.
Dozens of judicial and police officials involved in the probe against him have been dismissed or re-assigned, and dozens of police have been arrested and jailed.
"The key criteria, or litmus test, will be what percentage of the votes does Prime Minister Erdogan secure in the first round of presidential elections," said Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.
A percentage below what his party won in local elections could indicate his popularity is starting to wane, Hakura said.
Erdogan\’s critics say he unfairly dominated the vastly one-sided election campaign, using the resources of his office to monopolize media coverage and crisscross the country. He has denied any inappropriate use of state assets.