Istanbul, Turkey – After months of campaigning by two dozen political parties, four presidential candidates and a bewildering lineup of electoral alliances, Turkish voters head to the polls, again, on Sunday, to make a critical choice between two men.
The presidential run-off between incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan and opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu marks the final moment in what has been widely billed as Turkey’s most important election in recent history.
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The election period, which officially started on March 18, has seen numerous twists and turns, the most dramatic being Erdogan confounding opinion polls predictions to finish ahead of Kilicdaroglu but narrowly missing out on winning his third presidential term in the first round.
Since the initial vote on May 14 – held alongside parliamentary elections that saw Erdogan’s party and its allies secure 323 out of 600 seats – the level of electioneering has been scaled back with both candidates forgoing the mass rallies seen previously.
Erdogan has been buoyed by his showing in the first round, when he took 49.52 percent of the votes to Kilicdaroglu’s 44.88 percent.
“Tomorrow, let’s all go to the polls together for the Great Turkey Victory,” he tweeted on Saturday. “Let’s echo the will that was manifested in the parliament on May 14 to the presidency much more strongly this time. Let’s start the Century of Turkey with our votes.”
As well as extending his 20-year rule by another five years, a win for Erdogan would see him take the country past the centenary of its foundation in October.
The president later attended a ceremony in Istanbul to mark the anniversary of a 1960 coup that led to the execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, with whom Erdogan has often identified himself.
Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, has pivoted to a more nationalist tone since the first round after a strong showing by right-wing voters who gave the third-placed, nationalist presidential candidate Sinan Ogan more than 5 percent.
“Whatever your view or lifestyle; I appeal to all our people. This is the last exit. Let those who love their homeland come to the ballot box!” Kilicdaroglu said in a message sent Saturday.
In his final public appearance, the opposition leader told an Ankara meeting on family support that he would extend social security payments. “I will live like you, I will not live in palaces,” he pledged. “I will live like you and solve your problems.”
As in the first round, Turkish citizens living overseas have completed casting their ballots before election day. Some 1.9 million voted in 73 countries and at border gates, where the ballot boxes remain open until voting closes in Turkey.
The number of voters has been boosted by more than 47,500 voters who turned 18 over the past two weeks, taking the electorate in Turkey to nearly 60.8 million.
Some 192,000 ballot boxes across 87 electoral districts are open between 8am and 5pm (05:00 and 14:00 GMT).
The narrowing of the election to a choice between two candidates has seen both attract support from contenders who stood in the first round.
Third-placed Ogan backed Erdogan’s candidacy earlier this week, while party leaders from the electoral alliance that had supported Ogan switched their support to Kilicdaroglu.
Foremost among the latter was Umit Ozdag – like Ogan, a far-right nationalist whose Victory Party has claimed an anti-migrant position demanding the expulsion of refugees.
By embracing Ozdag’s endorsement and turning to nationalist rhetoric, Kilicdaroglu has run the risk of alienating Kurdish voters who backed him in the first round, according to Berk Esen, a political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul.
“I’m not sure Kilicdaroglu can maintain such high levels of support in the Kurdish-majority southeast provinces after Umit Ozdag’s support,” he said. “I think that’s going to generate some kind of reaction in that region … Ozdag’s endorsement comes with a huge cost.”
The first round also showed that voters’ decisions were not overly affected by an economic crisis that has seen rampant inflation, said Emre Peker, Europe director at the Eurasia Group.
Instead, Erdogan moved the debate away from the economy to issues such as family values and security – stigmatising the opposition as supporters of terrorism and LGBTQ rights.
“One thing we can say with certainty is that identity politics dominated the campaign despite the deepest economic problems in Turkey since the 2001 financial crisis,” he said.
“This is huge and you can’t underscore it enough.”
February’s earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey, had also been expected to be a significant factor in pushing down Erdogan’s votes, with critics focusing on what the president himself admitted were mistakes in the government’s response to the disaster.
But in eight of the 11 southern provinces affected by the earthquakes, Erdogan beat Kilicdaroglu in the first round, performing best in Kahramanmaras, where he secured 71.9 percent of the votes.
While recognising Kilicdaroglu’s achievement in consolidating and expanding his base, analysts said he failed to make inroads into Erdogan’s support.
“The challenge lies in getting a bigger slice of Turkey’s majority conservative and right-of-centre voters who make up anywhere between 60 and 65 percent of the electorate,” Peker said.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Washington Institute’s Turkish Research Program, added that voters found Kilicdaroglu’s “uninspiring”.
“He couldn’t make the electorate say ‘I can imagine a country that’s run better by Kilicdaroglu, I’m going to vote for him’.”