Turkey was awash in campaign promises today as politicians pressed to get voters' attention in the last remaining hours before a ban began ahead of tonight's critical presidential and parliamentary elections.
Speaking at five different rallies in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged citizens to vote and listed the hospitals and transportation facilities built during his time in office as proof of his leadership. He also slammed his opponents for reportedly lacking vision.
"The presidency requires experience," said the man who has led Turkey since 2003 as prime minister and since 2014 as the country's first directly elected president.
The 64-year-old Erdogan called the elections more than a year ahead of schedule in a bid to usher in an executive presidency with sweeping powers.
He said the new system will bring stability and prosperity to Turkey, but critics warn it could lead to a "one-man rule" amid signs of an unsound economy.
Despite the short campaign season, the uneven media coverage and government resources that favour Erdogan, his competitors for the presidency and in Parliament have launched a serious bid to unseat him.
More than 59 million Turkish citizens, including some three million living abroad, are eligible to vote. It's the first time they'll be voting for president and parliament at the same time — a change approved last year by a referendum that switched Turkey's governance system to an executive presidency.
Six candidates are running for president and eight parties have fielded candidates for 600 parliamentary seats. Five of those parties will also run as part of two competing electoral alliances: The "People Alliance" by Erdogan's ruling party and a nationalist party versus the "Nation Alliance" by the leading secular opposition, a nascent centre-right party and an Islamic-leaning party.
Erdogan's main opponent, Muharrem Ince, nominated by the secular Republican People's Party, drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to a rally in Istanbul. Confident and combative, Ince said "Erdogan you are going!" and called him a "fascist."
Ince promised voters an independent judiciary that he said would stabilise the economy. He warned supporters that a "regime of fear" would continue if Erdogan is re-elected, predicting that financial markets would be rattled and the national lira currency would decline further.
But halfway through Ince's rally, mainstream Turkish media switched over to a second Erdogan speech as he crisscrossed Istanbul, appearing in several districts.
Earlier, he declared that Turkey was now one of the world's leading economies, citing more than 7 per cent growth for the first quarter of 2018.
As required by law, Turkey's state broadcaster aired a message to voters from pro-Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas, recorded in a maximum security prison where he's been held for 20 months pending trial on alleged terror charges. He denies any wrongdoing and says he's Erdogan's "political hostage."
Demirtas said it's crucial that his party passes a 10 per cent electoral threshold to enter Parliament to "strengthen the country's democracy and realise peace." If the party falls below that threshold, Erdogan's party could gain a majority. Demirtas said his party's loss would mean "a loss for all of Turkey."
The liberal pro-Kurdish party has been the target of a massive crackdown by the government for purported links to outlawed Kurdish insurgents, with eight other lawmakers behind bars and thousands of party members arrested under a state of emergency still in place since Turkey's July 2016 failed coup. It says more than 350 members working on the election campaign have been detained in raids and at events since April 28.
THE SIX CANDIDATES
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN
In power since 2003 as prime minister and president, Erdogan, 64, is vying for a new five-year term in office under a new system that grants the president vast powers. A favourite to win, most opinion polls show him ahead of his rivals. However, a first-round victory is not certain and a second round runoff vote could take place on July 8.
Once a reformist, Erdogan has become a highly polarising figure and taken an authoritarian turn, curtailing free speech and jailing tens of thousands. He presided over an economic boom, championed large infrastructure projects and remains popular among conservative and pious supporters. He promises to make Turkey one of the major world economies by 2023, when the Turkey Republic celebrates its centenary. Erdogan is backed by both his ruling religious-conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and two nationalist parties.
Ince, a 54-year old former physics teacher and school principal, is backed by Turkey's main opposition, the pro-secular Republican People's Party.
Quick-witted and pugnacious, his election rallies have drawn large crowds and opinion polls indicate that his popularity has surged.
Ince promises to change the constitution and return Turkey to a parliamentary system with distinct separation of powers. He has also vowed to end the state of emergency that Erdogan's Government declared after a failed military coup in 2026 which allows the government to rule by decrees, often by-passing parliament. Ince wants improved relations with the European Union, and to reform Turkey's poor education system. The son of a farmer with humble origins, he has sought to appeal to Turkey's conservative and religious sections and to Kurds.
Turkey's only female presidential candidate, Aksener is a former interior minister who served between 1996 and 1997 and a popular former deputy parliament speaker.
The 61-year-old split from Turkey's nationalist party following a spat with its leader over his support to Erdogan in a referendum to increase presidential powers. Last year she established the Good Party, made up of former nationalists and centre-right figures. Like Ince, Aksener is a strong critic of Erdogan and has vowed a swift return to a parliamentary system with stronger checks and balances. Aksener and Ince have said they would support each other against Erdogan in a runoff second-round presidential vote.
The charismatic 45-year-old former co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, has one distinct disadvantage over his rivals: he is in jail.
Arrested in November 2016, Demirtas has run a campaign from his high-security prison in Edirne, northwest Turkey, while he fights terror-related charges for alleged links to outlawed Kurdish rebels. The politician, a former human rights lawyer, can run for office because he has yet to be convicted.
Over the years, Demirtas broadened his party's appeal beyond Turkey's mostly Kurdish-populated southeast region, winning the support of left-leaning and liberal voters. His party, however, is criticised for not sufficiently distancing itself from Kurdish rebels.
The 77-year old politician is the leader of the small Islamic-oriented Felicity Party, of which Erdogan's ruling AKP party is an offshoot. Strongly critical of Erdogan's policies, Karamollaoglu has aligned his party with those of Aksener and Ince, and is likely to back them in the event of a runoff presidential vote against Erdogan. The British-educated engineer is a former State Planning Organisation official and former mayor of the conservative city of Sivas.
The chairman of the nationalist, far-left Patriotic Party, the 75-year old politician was a leading figure in Turkey's leftist movement in the '70s and '80s. He spent time in prison following the country's 1980 military coup and then again in 2007, accused of plotting against Erdogan's Government in a trial that was later widely accepted to be bogus.
An anti-imperialist, he opposes Nato and wants the ouster of US jets from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. He advocates close ties with China and Russia. In 2007, he was sentenced by a Swiss court for denying that the killings of Armenians in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide. However, in 2015 the European Court of Human Rights defended his right to free speech.