- Published on Sunday, 10 August 2014 23:24
ISTANBUL — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to triumph in today’s presidential elections and extend his domination of Turkey despite warnings by opponents that the country is moving towards a one-man autocracy.
Erdogan, 60, a devout Muslim who has served as premier since 2003, has promised to be a powerful president with a beefed-up mandate, in contrast to the ceremonial role fulfilled by his recent predecessors.
The polls are the first time Turkey is directly electing its president, who was previously chosen by parliament.
Initial reports from polling stations — where AFP correspondents saw a thin turnout — indicated participation could be significantly lower than the 89 per cent seen in March’s local elections.
Opinion polls predict that Erdogan will easily win more than 50 per cent of votes to take Ankara’s Cankaya presidential palace in the first round, with his main opposition rival, the cerebral Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, lagging far behind.
“Our people will make an important decision for Turkish democracy,” said Erdogan as he cast his vote in Istanbul alongside his wife Emine and two daughters and two sons.
Erdogan indicated that he planned to revamp the post to give the presidency greater executive powers, which could see Turkey shift towards a system more like that of France if his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) succeeds in changing the constitution.
“This decision has significance in that an elected president, hand-in-hand with an elected government, will lead Turkey... in a determined fashion,” he said.
Erdogan’s opponents accuse him of undermining the secular legacy of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established a strict separation between religion and politics when he forged the new state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
“A ballot paper with only one name does not represent the democracy, it does not suit Turkey,” said Ihsanoglu, 70, as he cast his ballot in Istanbul.
He complained that the campaign had been “unfair, disproportionate”, nonetheless predicting that the votes of the “silent masses” would help him to victory.
Erdogan ran a lavish three-month campaign that swamped those of his rivals, his face glaring down at pedestrians in Istanbul from gigantic billboards at almost every street corner.
The campaign of Ihsanoglu — a bookish former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — has been modest by comparison and Erdogan belittled his main rival as a dreamy academic who will get nothing done.
While many secular Turks detest Erdogan, he can still count on a huge base of support from religiously conservative middle-income voters, particularly in central Turkey and poorer districts of Istanbul, who have prospered under his rule.
“I voted for Erdogan because I believe he is the only leader who can run the country properly. He has helped feed the poor and reached out to a larger section of our society,” Zahide, 52, a retired nurse, after voting in Istanbul.
But Ozlem, 24, a university student, said she voted for Ihsanoglu: “Our country is at a turning point. It’s either democracy or dictatorship. Everyone should come to their senses.”
Some 53 million voters in the country of 76 million were registered to vote, with polls due to close at 1400 GMT.
Results are expected to come in rapidly and many suspect Erdogan is already planning a victory speech from the balcony of AKP headquarters in Ankara around midnight.
All alcohol sales are banned until midnight in a bid to minimise the risk of any election-related unrest.
‘Today is a beginning’
The third candidate Selahattin Demirtas, 41, from Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is hoping to attract votes not just from Kurds but also secular Turks with a left-wing, pro-gay and pro-women’s rights message.
“Today is a beginning. It is a beginning for all those oppressed, marginalised, those earning their bread by the sweat of their brow,” he said as he cast his vote in the city of Diyarbakir.
But even though his charisma, flashing grin and fondness for white shirts with rolled-up sleeves have earned him the moniker “the Kurdish Obama” in some quarters, he would do well to poll 10 per cent of the vote.
Erdogan endured the toughest year of his rule in 2013, shaken by deadly mass protests sparked by plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park in Istanbul that grew into a general cry of anger by secular Turks who felt ignored by the AKP.
Later in the year, stunning corruption allegations emerged against the premier and his inner circle, including his son Bilal based on bugged conversations that enthralled the country like a soap opera.
The future of outgoing president Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP who appears to have distanced himself from Erdogan, is unclear, with many tipping Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as a possible choice to be premier.
Recalling that he was the last Turkish president to be elected by parliament, Gul said afer voting that he wished Turkey proceeds “on its path by keeping its democracy and law stronger and consolidating its economy.”