Turks abroad wrap up voting in landmark election

·3-min read
Turks living abroad have tended to support President Erdogan over his 21-year rule
Turks living abroad have tended to support President Erdogan over his 21-year rule

Millions of Turks living abroad on Tuesday wrapped up voting in a tense election that has turned into a referendum on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's polarising two-decade rule.

Sunday's presidential and parliamentary ballot will pass judgement on Turkey's longest-serving leader and the social transformation spearheaded by his Islamic-rooted AKP party.

The vote is Turkey's most consequential in generations and the toughest of the 69-year-old's tectonic career.

Polls show Erdogan locked in a tight battle with secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his powerful alliance of six parties that span Turkey's cultural and political divide.

The first votes were cast by Turks who moved from poorer provinces to Western Europe under job schemes aimed at combating the continent's labour shortage in the wake of World War II.

Such voters comprise 3.4 million of Turkey's 64.1 million registered electorate and tend to support more conservative candidates.

Official turnout on the morning of the last day of overseas voting on Tuesday exceeded 51 percent -- a touch higher than in the last general election that Erdogan won in 2018.

Kilicdaroglu's CHP has been trying to eat into Erdogan's traditional base of support by organising daily buses to take voters to the Turkish consulate in Berlin.

Germany accounts for nearly half of Turkey's diaspora vote.

"It's not just a presidential election," opposition supporter Katresu Ergez said while waiting for a CHP bus.

"It's about voting for the future of the country, whether democracy will be restored or whether it will go further towards dictatorship," the 29-year-old said.

- 'Please stay calm' -

Local CHP chapter co-leader Ercan Yaprak sounded confident that the opposition had finally mustered the numbers to end Erdogan's undefeated record in national votes.

"I think people sense that it's time for change," he told AFP.

The close race has been accompanied by spates of violence that reflect the anger running through Turkey's polarised society during its deepest economic crisis since the 1990s.

Dutch police said on Sunday they had to break up a "massive brawl involving some 300 people" at a polling station in Amsterdam.

Police in the French city of Marseille used tear gas to stop a similar fight between Erdogan's supporters and opponents last week.

That did not stop a second brawl from breaking out at the same Marseille polling station later in the day.

Tensions boiled over during a tour of Turkey's conservative heartland on Sunday by Istanbul's popular opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.

Right-wing protesters pelted his campaign bus with rocks and bottles while he was trying to deliver a speech from its roof.

Turkey's defence ministry said on Tuesday it had dismissed an infantry sergeant pending an investigation into his involvement in the violence.

The incident prompted Kilicdaroglu -- a 74-year-old former civil servant who wants to make Imamoglu his vice president -- to appeal for everyone to "please, please stay calm".

"We are going to an election and not to war," Kilicdaroglu said in a televised interview.

- Show of force -

The febrile atmosphere reflects the stakes for all sides.

The opposition casts the vote as decisive for Turkey's democratic future.

Erdogan centralised power and unleashed sweeping purges in the second decade of his rule.

His courtship of Russia and military incursions into Syria have also chilled his once-warm relations with the West.

But the Turkish leader still commands support among poorer and more religious voters

who remember corruption and hardship that blighted half a century of secular rule.

Erdogan staged a show-of-force rally in Istanbul on Sunday that drew hundreds of thousands of fervent followers.

He announced a new 45-percent hike in wages for 700,000 state workers on Tuesday -- the latest in a long line of such announcement during the campaign.

"Erdogan is throwing the kitchen sink, the cooker, the washing machine and the entire contents of the Turkish house at these elections," emerging markets economist Timothy Ash remarked.