Turkey votes in election viewed as referendum on Erdogan

ISTANBUL: Turks cast ballots on Sunday in their country’s second general election in less than half a year, and opinion polls predict an outcome similar to that of the June election, which deprived the ruling party of a parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002.The vote occurred in a climate of tension and polarization, a consequence of months of bitter, partisan campaigning by Turkey’s four leading political parties. Like the June election, it was once more framed as a kind of referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of the country for 13 years and hopes to extend his rule.About 54 million Turks were expected to vote in about 175,000 polling stations across 85 provinces. By mid-afternoon Sunday, the election appeared to have proceeded without major incident despite fears of fraud and voter suppression ahead of the weekend.

After the last elections, Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, a staunch Erdogan ally, was unable to form a coalition government, paving the way for a fresh round of elections.In the absence of a stable government, Turkey has experienced an upsurge in violence. The decades-old civil war with Kurdish separatists flared back into life, and suspected Islamic State terrorists struck targets in Turkey, including bombings at a leftist rally in Ankara that killed 102 people in theterrorist attack.“It has become apparent how important stability is to our nation. All of us should respect the attitude of the national will,” Erdogan told reporters after voting at a school in Istanbul’s leafy Kisikli neighborood, on the Asian side of the Bosporus.

But many of the president’s critics attribute the instability to his own political ambitions. Erdogan had hoped that the June election would deliver his ruling Justice and Development Party, or the AKP, a super-majority in parliament that could allow him to overhaul the Turkish political system and give himself more executive powers. Instead, the AKP suffered its worst result since coming to power more than a decade ago. Although it won a plurality of seats — 258 in the 550-seat parliament — and about 40 percent of the vote, it lost single-party control.Despite Erdogan’s attempts at winning new nationalist voters, Sunday’s election was expected to yield another scenario in which the AKP would have to consider entering into a coalition government.

Erdogan has remained the de facto ruler of the country, even though, technically, Davutoglu as prime minister is the head of government and the AKP. The president’s opponents decry what they deem his growing authoritarianism, which has seen the space for dissent contract in Turkey.“Erdogan was a great guy at the beginning of his rule, especially the first six or seven years,” said Hayri Gecim, 25, puffing a cigarette outside a polling station in Istanbul’s cosmopolitan neighborhood of Cihangir. “But now he has done some wrong things. He just wants power.”Gecim said he voted for the Peoples’ Democratic Party, a leftist, pro-Kurdish party also known as the HDP. Its unprecedented success in June — winning about 80 seats — came directly at the expense of the ruling party, which in the past had drawn considerable support from majority ethnically Kurdish areas in Turkey’s southeast.It was a stunning accomplishment, both considering the motley composition of the party — an alliance of leftists, feminists, ethnic minorities and nationalist Kurds — and its loose affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK, a Kurdish separatist militia that is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.

In the build-up to the election, AKP officials, including Erdogan, have attacked the upstart HDP for its connection to the PKK, whose decades-long armed struggle against the Turkish state whirred back into action this summer. Turkish authorities claim that PKK attacks have killed more than 150 security personnel since July, and the government launched an intense counter-insurgency campaign, including airstrikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq.The conflict has stoked nationalist sentiment within Turkey, with right-wing mobs attacking HDP offices and the headquarters of a prominent newspaper for its perceived anti-Erdogan coverage. The suicide bombings at the Ankara peace rally, in part sponsored by the HDP, exposed Turkey’s profound divisions as rival sides pointed accusatory figures at each other.

The heated rhetoric has fed a sense of political crisis. “Politics in Turkey is being robbed of its democratic vitality,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Tensions and differences are getting pushed into the streets and the mountains.”On Sunday, AKP supporters appeared to be in a confident mood. In the grounds of the Saffet Cebi school, where Erdogan voted, hundreds of supporters waited outside, chanting his name and declaring, “Turkey is proud of you.” The president’s bodyguards distributed presents to children in the crowd.“I’ve always wanted to see him in the flesh,” said Ishak Ceylan, in attendance with his wife and child. He added that he supported Erdogan or his religious nationalism, which over the past decade has steadily eroded Turkey’s long-standing legacy of secularism. “Erdogan is a world leader and a true Muslim.”

But that is not how all see him.“Erdogan is a dictator and a thief,” said Nese Ceniz, a writer who voted in Cihangir. “We shouldn’t have a one-man regime in Turkey.”


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