An election worker counts ballots in Hatay, southern Turkey An election worker counts ballots in Hatay, southern Turkey 

Turkey's president faces tough opposition challenge in election

Voters in Türkiye head to the polls on Sunday for presidential and parliamentary elections, with analysts predicting a tight race between the incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the opposition coalition's candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

By Stefan J. Bos

Voters were going to the polls on Sunday in what commentators have called the most significant election of 2023.

Among those voting was Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who appeared somber as he waited in line in Istanbul and then cast his ballot.

For the first time in two decades, Erdoğan, who leads a country of global economic and strategic importance, could be voted out of office.

Polls increasingly showed Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the unity candidate for six opposition parties, with a narrow lead over Erdoğan – possibly scoring above the 50 percent needed to win outright.

During his first presidential decade, Erdogan, former mayor of Istanbul, was applauded for transforming Turkey into an economic and political success story after his conservative, Islamist-rooted AK Party came to power.

But over the last 10 years, he's faced mounting criticism — domestically and internationally — for quashing dissent and adopting policies that some say are heavy-handed.

Taking over institutions

Erdogan, now 69, took control of many of Turkey's institutions – including much of the media and judiciary – steadily sidelining his opponents.

Advocacy group Human Rights Watch noted that over the last nine years, "there were thousands of prosecutions of journalists, political opponents, and others for criticizing the president and the government online."

It said that even just sharing or liking critical articles on social media led to prosecutions.

The 74-year-old Kılıçdaroğlu aims to reverse many of those policies, including Erdoğan's all-powerful executive presidency. Instead, he wants to return power to parliament, slash inflation and improve relations with the West.

But even if the opposition wins, questions remain about whether policies will become more favorable towards Christians and other minority faiths.

Christian advocacy group Open Doors says devoted Christians can face difficulties, for instance, in finding work. In addition, several individuals, including church leaders and missionaries, were attacked and, in some cases, even killed by extremists in recent years. Those converting from Islam to Christianity are among the believers at most risk from authorities and their families, according to Open Doors.

Whoever wins will take over a nation of 85 million people at the crossroads between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

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14 May 2023, 16:50