ANKARA (Reuters) – Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party were headed for victory in Turkey's presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday, according to preliminary results, as the president sought to extend his 15-year term.
Although the margin of advantage was constantly reduced as the nationwide vote of 81 million people was counted, an AK party official said that Erdogan was expected to earn more than the 50 percent required to avoid a second return.
An unexpectedly strong demonstration by the alliance partner of the AK Party, the nationalist MHP, could also mean that Erdogan secures the parliamentary majority seeking to govern freely.
However, the opposition raised doubts about the accuracy and reliability of the figures published by the state news agency Anadolu, the sole distributor of the official voting account.
Erdogan's main rival, Muharrem Ince, of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), urged election observers to remain at the polling stations to help prevent possible electoral fraud.
Sunday's vote marks the beginning of a powerful new executive presidency long sought by Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a referendum in 2017. Critics say it will further erode democracy in the member state of NATO and will consolidate the government of one man.
With 80 percent of the votes counted in the presidential race, Erdogan had 54 percent, ahead of Ince by 30 percent, media said.
The results compiled by the Platform for Equitable Elections, formed by the opposition parties, also pointed out that Erdogan won the presidency in the first round with around 53 percent.
In the parliamentary contest, the AK party had 44 percent and its ally MHP nearly 12 percent, based on 80 percent of the votes counted, media reports said.
In the opposition camp, the CHP had 22 percent and the Democratic Party of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples (HDP) 10.3 percent, crucially above the 10 percent threshold needed to enter the parliament.
HDP presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas has fought his campaign from a prison near the Greek border while awaiting trial on charges related to terrorism, which he denies. It had 7.4 percent, based on more than 80 percent of the votes cast.
FEARS OF FRAUD
Supporters of AK Party blocked a main road in the capital, Ankara, and brought party headquarters to honk to celebrate. It was expected that Erdogan would address the supporters from a balcony of the headquarters building later in the evening.
Electoral participation throughout the country was very high, around 87 percent in both contests, the state broadcaster said.
Opposition parties and NGOs deployed up to half a million monitors at the polls to protect themselves against possible electoral fraud. They have said that changes in the electoral law and accusations of fraud in the 2017 referendum raise fears about the fairness of Sunday's elections.
Erdogan said there were no serious violations of the vote.
"Turkey is organizing a democratic revolution," he told the journalists after casting their own vote in Istanbul on Sunday.
"With the presidential system, Turkey is seriously raising the bar, rising above the level of contemporary civilizations."
Erdogan, the most popular but divisive leader in modern Turkish history, argues that the new powers will better enable it to deal with the nation's economic problems, the lira has lost 20 percent against the dollar this year, and crush Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and neighboring Iraq and Syria.
Investors would welcome the prospect of a stable working relationship between the president and the new parliament, although they are also concerned about Erdogan's recent comments suggesting that he wants to take more control of monetary policy.
Erdogan has declared himself an "enemy of interest rates", raising fears that he will pressure the central bank to reduce borrowing costs after the elections despite double-digit inflation .
He advanced the elections in November 2019, but calculated without Ince, a former physics professor and veteran legislator CHP, whose combative performance at campaign rallies has galvanized Turkey's long and demoralized opposition.
Turkey held Sunday's elections under a state of emergency declared after a failed military coup in July 2016. This state restricts some freedoms and allows the government to bypass parliament with decrees. Both Erdogan and Ince have said that they will lift the state of emergency as president.
Erdogan blamed his former ally, the Muslim cleric in the US. UU Fethullah Gulen, and has carried out a major offensive against his followers in Turkey, arresting some 160,000 people, according to the United Nations.
Critics of the president, including the European Union to which Turkey still nominally aspires to join, say that Erdogan has used repression to stifle dissent.
Erdogan says that his harsh measures are necessary to safeguard national security.
Additional reports by Humeyra Pamuk, Gulsen Solaker, Ali Kucukgocmen, Ezgi Erkoyun, Can Sezer, David Dolan, Daren Butler, Ece Toksabay, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans; Written by Gareth Jones; Edited by Jon Boyle