ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's presidential election on Sunday appeared to be headed for a second round after the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, failed to win a majority, a result that left the longtime leader scrambling to avert his toughest political challenge yet. career.
The vote results set the stage for a two-week battle between Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition, to secure a May 28 second-round victory that could reshape Turkey's political landscape.
With the unofficial counting almost complete, Erdogan received 49.4 percent of the vote and 44.8 percent of the vote from Kilicdaroglu, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
But both sides claim to be superior.
“Although the final result is not yet in place, we are leading a long way,” Erdogan told supporters gathered outside his party headquarters in Ankara, the capital.
Speaking at his own party headquarters, Kilicdaroglu said the vote would reveal the “will of the nation.” He said, “We are here until every vote is counted.”
The competing claims come Monday morning after a nail-biting night in which each side accused the other of publishing misleading information. Erdogan warned the opposition on Twitter against “seizing the national will” and asked his loyal party “not to leave the polls, no matter what, until the results are finalized.”
Opposition politicians disputed the initial numbers reported by Anadolu, saying that their own figures collected directly from polling stations showed Kilicdaroglu in the lead.
At stake is a NATO member who has managed to unsettle many of his Western allies by maintaining warm relations with the Kremlin. As one of the 20 largest economies in the world, Turkey has a series of political and economic ties that span Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and its domestic and foreign policies can change greatly depending on who wins.
After he became prime minister in 2003, he presided over a period of tremendous economic growth that transformed Turkey's cities and lifted millions of Turks out of poverty. Internationally, he is being hailed as the new model of democratic Islamist, who is pro-business and wants strong ties with the West.
But over the past decade, criticism of Erdogan has grown both at home and abroad. He faced mass protests against his ruling style in 2013, and in 2016, two years after he became president, he survived a coup attempt. Along the way, he seized the opportunity to sideline rivals and gather more power into his hands, drawing accusations from the political opposition that he was steering the country into an autocracy.
Since 2018, a sinking currency and inflation that according to official figures exceeded 80 percent last year and 44 percent last month have eroded the value of Turks' savings and wages.
Erdogan's inability to win in the first round of voting on Sunday underscored his declining position among voters angered by his management of the economy and consolidation of power. In his last election, in 2018, he won in a landslide against three other candidates with 53 percent of the vote. His closest challenger received 31 percent.
On Sunday, one voter, Fatma Cay, said he had supported Erdogan in the past but not this time, partly because he was angry at how expensive foodstuffs like onions were.
“He forgot where he came from,” said Ms. Kay, 70 years old. “This nation can lift someone up, but we also know how to bring someone down.”
Still, he didn't turn to Kilicdaroglu, choosing the third candidate, Sinan Ogan, who garnered about 5 percent of the vote. Mr Ogan's elimination could give Mr Erdogan an edge in the second round, as Mr Ogan's right-wing nationalist followers are more likely to vote for him.
Erdogan remains popular with rural, working-class and religious voters, who credit him with building the country, enhancing its international standing and expanding the rights of observant Muslims in Turkey's staunchly secular state.
“We love Erdogan very much,” said Halil Karaaslan, a pensioner. “He has built everything: roads, bridges and drones. People feel comfortable and at peace.”
That, said Mr. Karaaslan, more important than the price increase. “There is no economic crisis,” he said. “Sure, everything is expensive, but the salary is almost that high. It's balanced.”
Seeking to capitalize on voter frustration, a coalition of six opposition parties came together to challenge Erdogan, backing the joint candidate, Kilicdaroglu.
Mr Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant who ran Turkey's social security administration before leading Turkey's largest opposition party, is campaigning as the antithesis of Mr Erdogan. In contrast to Erdogan's tough-man rhetoric, Kilicdaroglu shot campaign videos in his humble kitchen, talking about everyday issues like the price of onions.
Sunday's vote was also held to determine the composition of Turkey's 600-member Parliament, although results for those seats will not be expected until Monday. Parliament lost significant powers when the country turned to a presidential system after a referendum backed by Erdogan in 2017. The opposition has vowed to return the country to a parliamentary system.
Adding to the importance of this election for many Turks is that 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the country's founding as a republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. A national celebration is scheduled for the anniversary, on Oct. 29, and the president will preside over it.
The election was also prompted by issues that have long polarized Turkish society, such as the proper place of religion in a country that adheres to strict secularism. During 11 years as prime minister and nine years as president, Erdogan has expanded religious education and loosened rules restricting religious attire.
Derya Akca, 29, cites her desire to cover her hair as the main reason she supports Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. “They defended my freedom to wear the headscarf, which is the most important factor for me,” said Ms. Akca, who works in an Istanbul clothing store.
He remembers being so embarrassed after a college professor humiliated him in front of the class that he quit school, a decision he now regrets. “I feel like an outsider,” he said. “Now I wish I had stayed and fought.”
But elsewhere in the city, Deniz Deniz, co-owner of a bar popular with the city's LGBTQ community, bemoaned how the number of such establishments had dwindled in the last decade of Erdogan's tenure.
“I really want to change,” they say. “I want a country where LGBT+ people and women are not rejected. I want an egalitarian and democratic country.”
In the south of Turkey, which was devastated by a devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people, many voters have expressed their anger at the government's response at the ballot box.
“We had an earthquake and the government didn't even intervene,” said Rasim Dayanir, an earthquake survivor who voted for Mr Kilicdaroglu. “But our minds are made up before the earthquake.”
Mr Dayir, 25, had fled the town of Antakya, which was mostly destroyed by the earthquake, but returned with eight family members to vote on Sunday.
He stood amidst hundreds of voters lining up to vote inside an elementary school. Others voted in shipping containers that had been set up to replace the destroyed polling stations. Pak Dayir said his uncle, aunt and other family members had died in the earthquake.
“We hope,” he said. “We believe in change.”
Ben Hubbard reported from Ankara, and Gulsin Harman from Istanbul. Reporting contributed by Elif Inc from Istanbul, East Shaft from Ankara and Kirac's name from Antakya.