(CNN) – Turkey’s hotly contested presidential election looks set to go into a second round, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failing to secure 50% of the vote to decisively extend his 20-year rule.
At a time when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown much of the world into uncertainty, the high-stakes election will ultimately decide the fate of a key NATO ally and regional powerbroker.
The mood was noticeably gloomy at the headquarters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Istanbul on Sunday evening as his early lead slipped.
With 97.95% of the votes counted, Erdogan won 49.34% and his main opponent 44.99%, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Kemal Kilicdaroglu – means that neither can achieve complete success.
A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.28% of the vote, according to Anadolu, raising his chances of becoming a kingmaker. He tweeted that a second referendum was “highly likely” and that “Turkish nationalists and Ataturkists are key to this election.”
Kilicdaroglu welcomed the prospect of a runoff and said his party would win.
“If our nation is told the second round, we accept it happily. We will win the second round of this election. Everyone will see it,” he said, referring to the run scheduled for May 28.
Sunday’s race is the biggest challenge for Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman faced eEconomic headwinds and a critique of the impact of disaster February 6 earthquake.
For the first time, Turkey’s opposition has coalesced around a single candidate, Kilicdaroglu, representing an electoral coalition of six opposition parties.
Before the vote, analysts predicted that Erdogan would not relinquish power without a fight — and even if Kilicdaroglu could pull ahead, contesting numbers would be possible.
The outcome of the make-or-break referendum is being watched closely internationally, particularly in Moscow and Europe.
Turkey, a NATO member with the alliance’s second-largest military, has strengthened its ties with Russia in recent years. In 2019, it defied the US and even bought weapons from that country.
Erdogan has recently raised eyebrows in the West by pursuing closer ties with Russia as he pursues an offensive in Ukraine, and has caused headaches for NATO’s expansion plans by blocking the membership of Finland and Sweden.
Earlier in the count, Erdogan was confident of winning enough votes to win the election.
“We hope to finish this round with 50% of the vote,” he told supporters at the headquarters of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Ankara.
Erdoğan’s AK Party has previously accused Kılıkdaroğlu of reconvening and delaying decisions in opposition strongholds including Ankara and Istanbul.
Voters line up outside a polling station on May 14, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.
An election representative prepares ballots at a polling station in a polling station in Istanbul.
“My vote is for freedom,” voter Korhan Futasi, 46, told CNN from a polling station in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. My vote is for the future of our children. I am confident.
Yelis Sahin, 46, whose brother and son died in the earthquake: “This is a historic moment, we have been waiting for 20 years. This whole system needs to be changed.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Eren Uzmele, who voted for the first time, said: “The future of the country is in our hands. It is in the hands of the youth,” he said.
Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has promised to fix Turkey’s sagging economy and restore democratic institutions compromised by Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism.
After voting in Istanbul, Erdogan told reporters: “We pray to God for a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy.”
Meanwhile, after voting in Ankara, Kilicdaroglu said: “We all missed democracy, being together and embracing so much. I hope you will see spring come to this country from now on and will continue to do so forever.
Erdogan ended his election campaign on Saturday night with a prayer at Hagia Sophia, a mosque and major historical site in Istanbul. In contrast, Kıltaroğlu visited the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and a radical secularist.
Erdogan extols the virtues of his long rule, including stability, an independent foreign policy and the continued development of Turkey’s defense sector. Recently, he raised the wages of civil servants by 45% and lowered the retirement age.
Over the past two years, Turkey’s currency has fallen and prices have ballooned, fueling a cost-of-living crisis that has alienated Erdogan’s conservative, working-class support base.
Erdogan faced political setbacks on February 6 when a devastating earthquake laid waste to large parts of southeastern Turkey. His critics chastised him for a poor recovery effort and lax building regulations led by his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party for two decades.
A view of empty ballot papers at a polling station in Ankara.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Istanbul.
In the weeks after the earthquake, the government rounded up dozens of contractors, construction inspectors and project managers for violating building codes. Critics dismissed the move as sacrificial.
The government has apologized for “mistakes” in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The earthquake killed 51,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. Thousands more remain undiscovered by unidentified graves in the southeastern Turkish countryside.
On Thursday, Kilicdaroglu was further strengthened by the late withdrawal of minor candidate Muharrem Ince from the race. Despite his low turnout, some opposition figures feared he would split the anti-Erdogan vote.
Elections are held every five years in Turkey. More than 1.8 million voters living abroad have already cast their ballots on April 17, Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported Wednesday, citing the country’s deputy foreign minister. 65 million Turks are eligible to vote.
Supreme Election Council (YSK) chairman Ahmet Yener said last month that at least 1 million voters in earthquake-hit areas are expected not to vote this year amid migration.