The voters who have kept Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power for the last 15 years come from places like Elmalik. Nestled at the foot of the mountains an hour's ferry ride from Istanbul, life in the village centres around the mosque and three tea shops in the main square.

Nearly 70 per cent of its 2000 residents voted for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2015. Last year, three quarters of them supported the Turkish President in a referendum to change the country's constitution.

But in this week's elections Elmalik is giving Erdogan something besides its votes: a challenger from his own heartland. The village is home to Muharrem Ince, a 54-year-old former physics teacher whose fiery populism has energised Turkey's opposition and rattled Erdogan's ruling conservative party.

His campaigning has breathed new life into the Republican People's Party (CHP), the secular left-leaning party which founded the Turkish republic and once dominated the country's politics but has lost a string of elections to Erdogan since 2003.


Ince's canny outreach to a motley crew of opposition parties and unlikely allies — including Kurds, Islamists, and right-wing nationalists — has forged a broad political front against Erdogan and is giving the Turkish President his toughest election challenge in years.

Driving Erdogan from the presidential palace will still be an extremely difficult task. He is broadly popular in Turkey and has presided over strong economic growth and vast spending on infrastructure.

He also enjoys fawning media coverage from both state media and private outlets and has used emergency powers since a failed coup in 2016 to crack down on political opponents and critical journalists.

The AKP was accused of stuffing ballot boxes during the 2017 referendum and critics believe they will try it again on Sunday to ensure they hold onto power.

Muharrem Ince. Photo / AP
Muharrem Ince. Photo / AP

The polls have been erratic, but most put Erdogan on around 48 per cent of the vote while Ince has 30 per cent, while smaller candidates split the rest. If Erdogan does not get more than 50 per cent then the election will go to a second round, where he will face Ince head to head.

The CHP hopes that other opposition parties will then rally around Ince, giving him the votes to edge out Erdogan.

This is the first presidential election since the 2017 referendum, which transformed the presidency from a largely symbolic role to one with sweeping powers. Parliamentary elections will happen at the same time, where an alliance led by Erdogan's AKP may lose its overall majority in the Grand National Assembly.

The opposition's hopes are pinned on Ince's populist style. During his rallies, he paces on top of his campaign bus and assails Erdogan for losing touch with the Turkish people.


"While you eat quail eggs in the garden of your palace, people are eating genetically modified foods. People can't buy even a cup of tea and you drink white tea that costs 4500 lira per kilo," he roared.

Erdogan has seemed less sure-footed than in previous elections. In one speech, he promised that he would step aside if voters said "tamam" the Turkish word for "enough".

Within hours the hashtag #tamam was trending on Twitter and the CHP has plastered the phrase on its campaign material. His fortunes may be dented by the falling Turkish lira, which has lost 20 per cent of its value against the dollar in the last six months, driving up food prices and forcing a hike in interest rates.

While the CHP has long been viewed as the party of Turkey's secular elite, Ince is a practising Muslim and the son of a truck driver. People were stunned to see a party which once supported banning the hijab in universities put forward a candidate whose mother and sister both wear the headscarf.

Ince is able to appeal to religious voters who previously would never think of voting for the CHP. He also reached out to Kurds, who make up 19 per cent of the population but have been politically marginalised by both CHP and AKP governments.

Ince broke with his party leaders and voted against a law that stripped Kurdish MPs of their immunity from arrest. After the leader of the main Kurdish party was jailed in 2016, Ince went to visit him in prison.

The gesture was politically risky. But it was appreciated by many Kurds, who are expected to vote for Ince in a second round.

- Telegraph Group Ltd