Turkiye’s landmark election headed on Sunday to a likely runoff following a stormy night in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s secular rivals contested the ballot count.
The Anadolu state news agency showed the 69-year-old conservative leader on 49.86 per cent and his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu trailing with 44.38pc.
Anadolu’s figures were based on a count of 90.6pc of the ballot.
One or other of the candidates needed to break the 50-per cent threshold to avoid Turkiye going to its first election runoff in the post-Ottoman republic’s 100-year history on May 28.
But the secular opposition camp spearheaded by Kilicdaroglu cried foul. “We are leading,” the 74-year-old tweeted.
Leading opposition figures said the government was purposely slowing down the count in districts where Kilicdaroglu was enjoying strong support.
“They are contesting the count emerging from ballot boxes where we are massively ahead,” Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu told reporters.
Imamoglu said the opposition’s internal vote count showed Kilicdaroglu picking up 49pc of the vote and Erdogan just 45.
But neither the state media count nor the one presented by the opposition avoids the possibility of Turkiye holding another presidential vote in two weeks.
The election night drama reflected the massive stakes involved. Turnout was expected to reach 90pc in what has effectively become a referendum on Turkiye’s longest-serving leader and his Islamic-rooted party.
Erdogan has steered the nation of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras.
Turkiye has grown into a military and geopolitical heavyweight that plays roles in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine.
The Nato member’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East makes the election’s outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.
Erdogan is lionised across swathes of conservative Turkiye that witnessed a development boom during his rule.
More religious voters are also grateful for his decision to lift secular-era restrictions on headscarves and introduce more Islamic schools.
“My hope to God is that after the counting concludes this evening, the outcome is good for the future of our country, for Turkish democracy,” Erdogan said after casting his ballot in Istanbul.
‘We all miss democracy’
Erdogan’s first decade of economic revival and warming relations with Europe was followed by a second one filled with social and political turmoil.
He responded to a failed 2016 coup attempt with sweeping purges that sent chills through Turkish society and made him an increasingly uncomfortable partner for the West.
The emergence of Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance — the type of broad-based coalition Erdogan excelled at forging throughout his career — gives foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative.
A runoff on May 28 could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate.
But he would still be hounded by Turkiye’s most dire economic crisis of his time in power, and disquiet over his government’s stuttering response to the February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
“We all missed democracy,” Kilicdaroglu said after voting in the capital Ankara. “You will see, God willing, spring will come to this country.”
Pre-election polls indicated Kilicdaroglu would win the youth vote — nearly 10pc of the electorate — by a two-to-one margin.