Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey is going to the polls on Sunday, voting simultaneously in parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time in the country’s history.
The snap polls opened at 8am (05:00 GMT) across Turkey and will close at 5pm (14:00 GMT), in contrast to previous elections in which eastern provinces started voting one hour earlier.
Preliminary results expected at 17:00 GMT, while the official results will not be out for a few days.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking a powerful new executive presidency, addressed several different rallies in Istanbul on Saturday, urging people to get out and vote.
“The presidency requires experience,” said Erdogan, in power since 2003, as he attacked the opposition for lacking vision.
His main challenger, Muharrem Ince, also addressed supporters in Turkey’s largest city on the last day of campaigning.
“Tomorrow, we will have a completely different Turkey. Tomorrow, discrimination will come to an end,” said Ince, of the main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).
More than 56 million voters will be able to cast their ballots in more than 180.000 ballot boxes across Turkey.
The voting on Sunday will be the first time that presidential and parliamentary polls are held simultaneously, in line with last year’s constitutional changes that will transform the country’s parliamentary system to an executive presidential one.
The changes will largely enter into force after the elections. They are set to hand the next president significant executive powers and will abolish the prime ministry as well as remove the monitoring role of parliament, among others.
The new system will allow the presidential office to appoint vice presidents, ministers, high-level officials and senior judges. The president will also be able to dissolve parliament, issue executive decrees, and impose a state of emergency.
Originally scheduled for November 3, 2019, the vote was moved forward by more than 18 months in April by the parliament, which is controlled by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
The AK Party joined forces with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to create the People’s Alliance for the polls. Erdogan is the bloc’s joint presidential candidate.
To challenge Erdogan’s alliance, the opposition formed the diverse Nation Alliance, which includes the CHP, the debuting right-wing Good Party (IYI) and the ultraconservative Felicity Party (SP), with backing from the minor centre-right Democrat Party (DP).
The Nation Alliance parties have fielded individual presidential candidates, including CHP’s Ince, whose numbers have been climbing in opinion polls, and Meral Aksener, the popular right-wing politician who leads IYI Party.
Both blocs were established in line with a recently introduced legislation that allows political parties to form election alliances in parliamentary polls. Such alliances were previously banned.
According to a law passed by parliament on March 3, an officially formed bloc can jointly pass Turkey’s unusually high 10 percent parliamentary election threshold.
However, citizens will still vote for the individual parties on the ballots. The legislation is aimed at helping smaller parties enter parliament by joining forces with larger ones.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the only other party that has chances to pass the threshold, has entered elections without an alliance. Its presidential candidate is Selahattin Demirtas, a popular Kurdish politician who has been in jail since 2016 accused of terror-related charges.
Ramazan Unal, a 39-year-old waiter, voted in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul.
“I cast my vote for the stability in the country to continue. Things will get even better with the current government,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The government delivered the biggest projects in Turkey’s history from modern hospitals to airports and universities. This country did not have any subways. Now they are running in multiple cities in our beloved country. There has been great investments,” he added.
Veysel Emre Yersel, 37, who voted at the same polling station disagreed: “The country is moving towards an authoritarian regime and democratic standards are falling. I would like to wake up to a better Turkey with a different government.”
“There should be diversity in a democracy, in which everyone’s voices are heard. In the current climate there is no diversity, there is only one voice,” the real estate agent added.
A second round of voting will take place on July 7, unless a candidate gets more than 50 percent on Sunday. Presidential hopefuls from the Nation Alliance, as well Demirtas, have declared that if the race goes to a runoff vote, they will back any candidate running against Erdogan.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency, in place since July 2016 following a failed deadly coup blamed by the government on the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based self-exiled religious leader.
Turkey’s Western allies have repeatedly condemned the Turkish government’s detentions and purges after the coup attempt.
Local and international rights groups accuse the government of using the coup bid as a pretext to silence opposition in the country.
Erdogan’s government says that the purges and detentions are in line with the rule of law and aim to remove Gulen’s supporters from state institutions and other parts of society.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter @Um_uras