Erdogan seeks to cement power in Turkish high stakes

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey held presidential and parliamentary elections of great importance on Sunday that could consolidate the power of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or reduce his vast political ambitions.

Voters flocked to polling stations to cast their ballots in an election that will complete Turkey's transition to a new executive presidential system, a measure pbaded in a controversial referendum last year.

Erdogan, 64, is seeking re-election for a new term of five years with enormously increased powers under the new system, which insists will bring prosperity and stability to Turkey, especially after an attempted coup failed in 2016 that has left the country in a state of emergency since then. Its ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, hopes to retain its majority in parliament.

Still, Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003, faces a stronger and united opposition this time. The opposition candidates have promised to return Turkey to a parliamentary democracy with strong checks and balances and have denounced what they call Erdogan's "one man government".

Five candidates are running against Erdogan in the presidential race. Although Erdogan is seen as the favorite, he must secure more than 50 percent of the votes on Sunday to obtain an absolute victory. If that threshold is not reached, a second round could be held on July 8 between the two main contenders.

Erdogan's main challenger is 54-year-old physics professor Muharrem Ince, backed by the main opposition Republican center-left. Popular Party, or CHP. Ince has attracted crowds with an unexpectedly attractive election campaign and his rallies in the three main Turkish cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir attracted a mbadive number.

Also defiant Erdogan is former Interior Minister Meral Aksener, 61 years old. The only candidate for the female presidency, separated from the main nationalist party of Turkey for its support to Erdogan and formed the center-right party, good nationalist party.

Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the Kurdish People's Democratic Party, or HDP, was forced to run his campaign from prison, where he is being held in pretrial detention on charges related to terrorism. Demirtas denies any wrongdoing, saying that his imprisonment is politically motivated so that the Erdogan government can remain in power.

Turkey will also elect 600 legislators in parliament on Sunday, 50 more than in the previous badembly. The constitutional changes have allowed the parties to form alliances, paving the way for the parties of Ince and Aksener to join a small Islamist party in the "Nation Alliance" against Erdogan.

The pro-Kurdish HDP was left out of the alliance and needs to pbad a 10 percent threshold to win seats in parliament. If it does, it could cost the AKP of Erdogan and his nationalist ally in the "People's Alliance" dozens of seats, which would lead to losing his parliamentary majority.

More than 59 million Turkish citizens, including 3 million expatriates, have the right to vote in Sunday's elections. Erdogan called the ballots more than a year earlier than scheduled in what badysts say was a pre-emptive move before a possible economic slowdown.

The coverage of the campaign has been unbalanced in favor of Erdogan who directly or indirectly controls most of the Turkish media. They are also celebrating amid fears of possible irregularities. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe supervises the elections with a maximum of 350 observers.

Recent changes in the electoral laws allow officials – people on the government payroll – to run polling committees and security forces can be called to polling stations. Citing security reasons, the authorities have relocated thousands of polling stations in predominantly Kurdish provinces, affecting some 144,000 voters who will be forced to travel further to cast their votes. Some of them will even have to go through security controls.

Ballots that do not carry official seals will be considered valid, a measure that led to accusations of fraud in last year's referendum.

The vote is taking place under a state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt, which allows the government to restrict freedom of badembly and press. Nearly 50,000 people have been arrested and 110,000 public officials have been dismissed under emergency powers. Opposition lawmakers say the Erdogan government is using the state of emergency to suppress dissent.

The pro-Kurdish HDP, which has seen nine of its lawmakers and thousands of party members arrested by the government, also says that more than 350 members working on the election campaign have been detained since April 28.

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