ISTANBUL – Voters in Turkey went to the polls Sunday in a high-stakes election that could drastically alter the NATO ally's path or give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At a time of economic instability and strained relations with the West, the outcome could also shape U.S.-Turkish relations for years to come.
“If Erdogan wins, we’re going to see Turkey turn more into a country like Russia, a one-party rule, a one-man rule, and it’s going to lead to major instability both politically and economically,” said Utku Balaban, an adviser to Aykut Erdogdu, the vice president of Turkey’s main opposition party.
Erdogan , speaking at five different rallies in Istanbul, urged citizens to vote and listed the hospitals and transportation facilities built during his time in office as proof of his leadership. He also condemned his opponents for lacking vision.
“The presidency requires experience,” said Erdogan, who has led Turkey since 2003 as prime minister and since 2014 as the country’s first directly elected president.
Erdogan, 64, called for the elections more than a year ahead of schedule in a bid to usher in an executive presidency with sweeping powers.
Turkey’s opposition, which has vowed to reverse the constitutional changes, has billed the election as a choice between democracy and authoritarian rule.
“Your decision will concern not only today, but also our future, our children’s and our grandchildren’s future,” said Selahattin Demirtas, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party candidate for president, in a televised speech this week.
Demirtas, a former human rights lawyer and well-known politician, has been running his campaign from prison after being accused of ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), militants who have wages a decades-long war against Turkey.
The winner of Sunday's presidential election, which are taking place under a state of emergency, must secure 51 percent of the vote in the first round to win. If no candidate does so, a second round will take place on July 8 that will pit the top two candidates against each other.
“The biggest issue at stake is that the election will not resolve Turkey’s ongoing (political) crisis, it will only deepen it,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of "The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey" and a director of the Turkish program at the Washington Institute. “The country is so deeply polarized on one issue – whether you either love or loathe President Erdogan – and that won’t go away after the election.”
Turkey’s opposition, long seen as weak and fractured, has defied expectations and mounted a serious challenge to Erdogan. In parliamentary elections, president Erdogan’s ruling AK party has also faced a fierce challenge and could risk losing its grip on power.
“I think Erdogan will win, but he will emerge from his victory even less secure than before and I think he only becomes more authoritarian going forward” in order to hold on to power, Cagaptay said.
How the elections play out could also determine the course for future relations between Turkey and the United States.
“Turkey remains an important NATO ally and critical to numerous U.S. interests in the region, particularly efforts to counter terrorism and end the conflict in Syria,” said Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings Institution. “It is in America's interest to have a strong, stable country with a democratically elected government that upholds rule of law and works as an effective partner to address shared challenges.”
Relations between Turkey and the U.S. have been strained recently. Turkey has been angered by the failure of the U.S. to extradite Pennsylvania-based cleric Fetullah Gulen. The Turkish government has also been incensed by the trial in New York of senior Turkish officials for evading sanctions with Iran.
The U.S. has criticized Turkey for its authoritarian turn in the wake of the country’s failed 2016 coup and has also condemned the continued detention of U.S. citizens in Turkey.
A win for Erdogan would likely mean more confrontation with the West in the years to come, said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank.
“An opposition win could herald a different era, where Turkey would be more inclined to return to its more traditional parameters, which does include the prioritization with its relationship with the West,” Ulgen said. “That does not necessarily mean that all the problems, whether they are with the U.S. or Europe, will suddenly disappear overnight.”