Early results from Turkey’s presidential election on Sunday showed President Tayyip Erdogan well ahead with 59.47% of votes compared to opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu with 34.79%, although the gap was expected to narrow as more votes are counted.
Broadcaster HaberTurk gave the results based on a count of 9.1% of ballot boxes.
Initial results were expected to be favorable for Erdogan, as many of the first counts typically come from his conservative, rural heartland.
Four sources from Turkey’s opposition said they believed Kilicdaroglu was ahead by a narrow margin.
Sunday’s vote is one of the most consequential elections in the country’s 100-year history, a contest that could end Erdogan’s imperious 20-year rule and reverberate well beyond Turkey’s borders.
Opinion polls before the election had given Kilicdaroglu, who heads a six-party alliance, a slight lead, with two polls on Friday showing him above the 50% threshold needed to win outright. If neither wins more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held on May 28.
The presidential vote will decide not only who leads Turkey, a NATO-member country of 85 million, but also how it is governed, where its economy is headed amid a deep cost of living crisis, and the shape of its foreign policy.
Polling stations officially closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) after nine hours of voting.
The elections, which are also for parliament, are being intently watched in Western capitals, the Middle East, NATO and Moscow.
A defeat for Erdogan, one of President Vladimir Putin’s most important allies, will likely unnerve the Kremlin but comfort the Biden administration, as well as many European and Middle Eastern leaders who had troubled relations with Erdogan.
Turkey’s longest-serving leader has turned the NATO member and Europe’s second largest country into a global player, modernized it through megaprojects such as new bridges, hospitals and airports, and built a military industry sought by foreign states.
But his volatile economic policy of low interest rates, which set off a spiralling cost of living crisis and inflation, left him prey to voters’ anger. His government’s slow response to a devastating earthquake in southeast Turkey that killed 50,000 people added to voters’ dismay.
Kilicdaroglu has pledged to set Turkey on a new course by reviving democracy after years of state repression, returning to orthodox economic policies, empowering institutions who lost autonomy under Erdogan’s tight grasp and rebuilding frail ties with the West.
Thousands of political prisoners and activists, including high level names such as Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and philantropist Osman Kavala, could be released if the opposition prevails.