Vastavam web: Turks began voting today in dual parliamentary and presidential polls seen as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s toughest election test, with the opposition revitalised and his popularity at risk from growing economic troubles.Erdogan has overseen historic change in Turkey since his Islamic-rooted ruling party first came to power in 2002 after years of secular domination. But critics accuse the Turkish strongman, 64, of trampling on civil liberties and displaying autocratic behaviour.
Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT (10.30 IST) and were due to close at 1400 GMT (7.30pm IST) , with the first results expected late in the evening.But both these goals are in doubt in the face of an energetic campaign by his rival from the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, who has mobilised hundreds of thousands in mega rallies, and a strong opposition alliance in the legislative polls.Erdogan remains the favourite to hold on to the presidency even if he needs a second round on July 8 but the outcome is likely to be much tighter than he expected when calling the snap polls one-and-a-half years ahead of schedule.
Analysts say the opposition’s performance is all the more troubling for the authorities given how the campaign has been slanted in favour of Erdogan, who has dominated media airtime.”Ince has shown in a very short time that a serious alternative could be emerging.” The stakes in this election are particularly high as the new president will be the first to enjoy enhanced powers under a new constitution agreed in a April 2017 referendum strongly backed by Erdogan.Erdogan, whose mastery of political rhetoric is acknowledged even by critics, has won a dozen elections but is now fighting against the backdrop of increasing economic woes.
Inflation has zoomed well into double digits with popular concern over sharp rises in staples like potatoes and onions while the Turkish lira has lost some 25 per cent in value against the US dollar this year.Meanwhile, former physics teacher Ince built up a national following with lacerating attacks on Erdogan’s rule, bringing up near-taboos like the AKP’s past cooperation with the group of Fethullah Gulen blamed for the 2016 failed coup. He mustered colossal numbers for rallies in the three largest cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul on the final days of the campaign, promising a “different Turkey”.
Erdogan has at times seemed on the back foot, making promises to lift the state of emergency imposed after the coup bid and ensuring the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey go home only after similar pledges by Ince.The votes of Turkey’s Kurdish minority will be especially crucial in the parliamentary poll. If the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) wins seats by polling over the 10 per cent minimum threshold, the AKP will struggle to keep its overall majority.But in a situation labelled as blatant unfairness by activists, the HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has campaigned from a prison cell after his November 2016 arrest on charges of links to outlawed Kurdish militants.The vote will be closely watched by the European Union — which Erdogan says he still wants Turkey to join despite the accession process grinding to a halt — and the United States which has seen no improvement in ties with its NATO ally under Donald Trump.