Election officials prepare to count ballots on May 14, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Election officials prepare to count ballots on May 14, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.

(Photo: Mehmet Kacmaz/Getty Images)

Erdogan's Hold on Power in Question as Votes Counted in Turkey

Neither the incumbent nor his main rival has secured the majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff election in two weeks.

Whether Turkey's authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, maintains power remains an open question as officials continue to count votes following Sunday's presidential and parliamentary elections.

Tens of millions of people cast ballots in the pivotal election before polls closed at 5:00 pm local time. Preliminary results indicate that Erdoğan of the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds a dwindling lead over Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who heads the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and is the joint candidate of a six-party opposition coalition.

The state-run Anadolu news agency reports that Erdoğan is beating Kılıçdaroğlu by a margin of 49.56% to 44.71% with nearly 95% of votes counted. The private Anka news agency, meanwhile, reports that Erdoğan is ahead of Kılıçdaroğlu, 49.24% to 45.04%, with just over 98% of votes counted. Two other candidates have garnered support from a small percentage of voters.

As expected, the incumbent jumped out to an early lead as votes in his conservative central heartland were among the first counted, but his main challenger has gained ground as the tally proceeds in big cities and coastal areas. It may take up to three days for official results to be confirmed. If no candidate wins over 50% of first-round ballots, the top two vote-getters will compete again in a head-to-head runoff scheduled for May 28. Both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu's camps have acknowledged that this is an increasingly likely outcome.

Muharrem İnce, a former CHP member who dropped out of the contest just days ago, has received roughly 0.4% of the vote. Far-right nationalist candidate Sinan Oğan has secured about 5.3%, making him a potential kingmaker in the event the race goes to a second round.

Reporting of the results has proven controversial. Earlier on Sunday evening, when it was reported that Erdoğan had a substantial lead, opposition figures accused state-run media of deceiving the public and claimed that Kılıçdaroğlu is winning.

"Anadolu Agency is doing its traditional manipulation for the last time," said CHP spokesperson Faik Oztrak. "We ask our citizens to follow our statements."

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a CHP member who took office in 2019, also slammed the outlet. Citing similar actions in past elections, he said: "We are experiencing another Anadolu Agency case. The agency's reputation is below zero. They should not be trusted. Anadolu's data is null and void."

Imamoglu was echoed by Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, another CHP member elected in 2019, who said: "They mislead our nation by running the ballot boxes that work for them. They do not feel ashamed either. They have no credibility... According to the data we have, our President Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is ahead."

Omer Celik, a spokesperson for the ruling AKP rebuked the opposition for criticizing Anadolu.

According to Progressive International: "AKP has challenged many votes in precincts where they are trailing all over the country. If these challenges are unfounded, it will delay the counting process several hours. This means we could see a late surge for opposition parties."

The group, which sent an election observation delegation to Turkey, sounded the alarm about possible dirty tricks being carried out on behalf of Erdoğan.

According to Al Jazeera correspondent Abdelazeem Mohammed, the election is "most likely heading to a second round."

"The opposition is saying that the ruling alliance... deliberately started the vote count in its strongholds," said Mohammed.

Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from CHP headquarters in Ankara, said the party is feeling "more and more confident" as the additional ballots are tallied and Erdoğan's initial lead shrinks.

"CHP, along with the opposition coalition, is looking forward to increasing numbers in major cities, and that the numbers in Istanbul and Ankara could be [a] strong indication that they are going to go to a runoff," said Ahelbarra.

"In 2022, they put together this coalition from all walks of life with different affiliations," Ahelbarra explained. "The reason why they did this was to consolidate gains because they know that the AKP, with the leadership of Erdoğan for the past 20 years, makes it extremely difficult for them to win the elections."

Speaking from Istanbul, political analyst Cengiz Tomar told Al Jazeera that "the results so far spell out a great failure for the opposition."

"The results so far do not align at all with the sociological make-up of the Turkish people, where 35% of them are religious, conservative, and on the right, and the remaining 65% are secular and Kurdish," he said.

Ahead of the election, polling data gave Kılıçdaroğlu a slight lead and also suggested that Erdoğan’s governing coalition, led by the AKP, could lose its majority in parliament.

In the run-up to Sunday, however, human rights groups warned that Erdoğan’s right-wing government would "exert considerable control over the digital ecosystem in an effort to undermine the outcome," and there is fresh reporting of "foul play" on the day of the election.

Erdoğan has ruled Turkey for the past two decades, first as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and as president since 2014. Before he was reelected in 2018, Erdoğan convinced enough Turkish voters to approve constitutional changes that transformed the nation's parliamentary system into a highly centralized presidential regime with few checks and balances.

Erdoğan "fell behind in the polls as voters react to the results of 20 years of his rule, including a brutal economic crisis that caused the lira to devalue by half last year alone and soaring inflation," The Guardianreported Sunday. "Criticism of his government increased after a slow and patchy state response to deadly twin earthquakes in the country's southeast that killed more than 50,000 people and destroyed homes and infrastructure across 11 provinces."

Progressives have argued that a Kılıçdaroğlu victory is necessary to revive Turkey's economy, restore its democracy, and protect women's rights, among other goals.

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