ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turks vote for a new president and parliament on Sunday in the elections that represent the biggest challenge for Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party, rooted in Islam, since they came to power more than a decade ago and a half.
Elections will also usher in a powerful new executive presidency sought by Erdogan and backed by a small majority of Turks in a 2017 referendum. Critics say it will further erode democracy in the NATO member state and consolidate the one-man government.
Erdogan, the most popular but divisive leader in modern Turkish history, advanced the elections since November 2019, arguing that the new powers would allow him to face the growing economic problems of the nation: the lira has lost 20 percent against to the dollar this year – and deal with the Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
But he did not have Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the secular People's Republican Party (CHP), whose militant action at campaign rallies has galvanized the demoralized and divided opposition of Turkey.
Addressing a rally in Istanbul on Saturday that was attended by at least a million people, and possibly many more, Ince promised to reverse what he and the opposition parties see as Turkey's turn towards authoritarian rule under Erdogan .
"If Erdogan wins, his phones will continue to be heard … Fear will continue to reign … If Ince wins, the courts will be independent," Ince said, adding that it would lift Turkey's state of emergency within 48 hours of being chosen one.
CRACKDOWN  Turkey has been under emergency rule – which restricts some personal liberties and allows the government to bypass parliament with emergency decrees – for almost two years after a failed military coup in July 2016.
Erdogan blamed the coup his former ally, based in the USA. UU The Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, and has carried out a great offensive against the followers of the preacher in Turkey. The United Nations says that some 160,000 people have been arrested and almost as many more, including teachers, judges and soldiers, fired.
The president's critics, including the European Union to which Turkey still nominally aspires to join, say that Erdogan has used repression to suppress dissent. Few newspapers or other media are now openly critical of the government and have received much more electoral coverage than other presidential candidates.
Erdogan, who defends his harsh measures as essential for national security, told his supporters at the rallies on Saturday that, if re-elected, he would go ahead with more than the large infrastructure projects that have helped to turn Turkey into one of the world's fastest growing economies during its mandate.
"If he wins, I think the obstacles before us will disappear and we will have control," said Nesrin Cuha, a 37-year-old call center worker wearing a headscarf. Muslim religious observers form the basis of Erdogan's support.
"The opposition will no longer be a nuisance with the new presidential system," said another Erdogan supporter, retired sailor Engin Ozmen, 60.
Sunday's vote begins at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and ends at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). Nearly 60 million Turks are eligible to vote, out of a total population of 81 million.
Polls show that Erdogan did not achieve victory in the first round of the presidential race, but is expected to win a second round on July 8, while his AK party could lose its parliamentary majority, possibly announcing the increase in the tensions between president and parliament.
Other presidential candidates include Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), who is now incarcerated on charges related to terrorism that he denies. If the HDP exceeds 10 percent of the threshold of votes necessary to enter parliament, it will be more difficult for the AKP to obtain the majority.
In a final appeal to vote in a video clip from his high security prison, Demirtas said: "If the HDP fails to enter Parliament, it will lose all of Turkey." Supporting the HDP means supporting democracy. "
Written by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Potter