Polls have opened in Turkey for presidential and parliamentary elections that will test President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power after more than 15 years of increasingly authoritarian rule.
Previously divided opposition parties have come together in a tenuous alliance in an effort to end what they call Erdogan's march toward "one-man rule."
Erdogan in April declared that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on June 24, 17 months earlier than planned, a move that could help him consolidate his power.
Under constitutional amendments approved after a controversial 2017 referendum, Turkey is making a transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one -- giving the next president expanded powers, abolishing the prime minister's post, and eliminating many of the checks and balances designed to help parliament protect against the misuse of presidential powers.The changes will take effect after the elections.
However, Erdogan and his ruling party could be facing tougher competition than initially expected. Polls suggest that the presidential vote could head into a second-round runoff on July 8 and that the Justice and Development (AK) Party could lose its parliamentary majority after 16 years.
Erdogan's leading challenger is likely to be Muharrem Ince of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), a secularist grouping.
The CHP leader is backed by the newly formed National Alliance, which along with secular social democrats, includes center-right conservatives, nationalist liberal conservatives, and conservative Islamists.
"I hope for the best for our nation," Ince said on June 24 as he voted in his native port town of Yalova, south of Istanbul. Ince also vowed to spend the night at the headquarters of Turkey's election authority in Ankara to ensure a fair count.
National Alliance parliamentary candidates vowed that if they secure majority control of the legislature, they will try to roll back the Erdogan-backed constitutional amendments narrowly approved in the controversial 2017 referendum.
On the eve of the elections, hundreds of thousands of people packed the Maltepe shore on the Asian side of Istanbul for Ince’s final speech, which followed massive rallies in Izmir, Ankara, and elsewhere.
The former physics teacher, who has pledged to end what he calls Erdogan’s "one-man rule," claimed the gathering attracted 5 million people, although no official estimates were available.
Ince told the crowd that if he wins, “it will not just be Ince who wins...80 million people will win! Turkey will win!"
Erdogan, who held five rallies in Istanbul on June 23, called on supporters to be vigilant at the polling stations.
"Beware: do not be overcome by languor. Take all your friends, relatives to the ballot box," he said. "The security personnel will intervene once you ask them to do so."
Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for more than 15 years, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president. He remains popular with vast segments of the population.
Selahattin Demirtas, a jailed Turkish-Kurdish politician, is also a candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party's (HDP). He has campaigned from jail, where he has been held since November 2016 while awaiting trial on charges of having ties to Kurdish militants. He denies the charges.
Kurds make up about 18 percent of Turkey's 78 million people, mostly in eastern regions, and are expected to play a key role in deciding the outcome of the parliamentary elections.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and dpa