Muharrem Ince, presidential candidate of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party, delivers a speech during an election rally in Istanbul, Saturday, June 23, 2018. Turkish voters will vote Sunday, June 24, in a historic double election for the presidency and parliament. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Polls open in Turkey's high-stakes elections

June 24, 2018 - 1:24 am

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Polls opened for Turkey's high-stakes presidential and parliamentary elections Sunday, which could consolidate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hold on power or curtail his political ambitions.

Voters began gathering outside polling centers to cast their ballots in the elections that complete Turkey's transition to a new executive presidential system that was approved in a controversial referendum last year.

Erdogan, 64, is seeking re-election for a new five-year term with vastly increased powers under the new system, which he insists will bring prosperity and stability to Turkey, especially after a 2016 failed coup attempt. His ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is hoping to retain its majority in parliament.

Erdogan — who has been in power since 2003 — is however facing a more robust and united opposition, which has vowed to return Turkey to a parliamentary democracy with strong checks and balances. It has decried what it calls Erdogan's "one-man rule."

Five candidates are running against Erdogan in the presidential race. Although Erdogan is seen as the front-runner, he must secure more than 50 percent of the vote for an outright win on Sunday. If the threshold is not reached, a runoff could be held on July 8 between the leading two contenders.

Erdogan's main challenger is 54-year-old combative former physics teacher Muharrem Ince, who is backed by the center-left main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and has wooed crowds with an unexpectedly engaging election campaign. His rallies in Turkey's three main cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir drew massive numbers.

Also challenging Erdogan is 61-year-old former interior minister Meral Aksener. The only woman candidate, she broke away from Turkey's main nationalist party over its support for Erdogan and formed the center-right and nationalist Good Party.

Selahattin Demirtas, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, was forced to run his campaign from prison, where he is being held in pre-trial detention on terrorism-related charges. Demirtas maintains his imprisonment is politically-motivated.

Turkey will also be electing 600 lawmakers to parliament — 50 more than in the previous assembly. The constitutional changes have allowed parties to form alliances, paving the way for Ince and Aksener's parties 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 pass a 10 percent threshold to win seats in parliament. If the party passes the threshold, it could cost Erdogan's AKP and its nationalist ally in the "People Alliance" dozens of seats — leading it to lose its parliamentary majority.

More than 59 million Turkish citizens — including 3 million expatriates — are eligible to vote in the elections, which were called more than a year earlier than scheduled in what analysts say was a pre-emptive move by Erdogan ahead of a possible economic downturn.

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