ANKARA, Turkey — Voters in Turkey are heading to the polls on Sunday for landmark parliamentary and presidential elections that are expected to be tightly contested and could be the biggest challenge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces in his two decades in power.
The vote will either grant the increasingly authoritarian Erdogan a new five-year term in office or set the NATO-member country on what his opposition contender calls a more democratic path.
Polling began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and will close at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT). Media organizations are barred from reporting partial results until an embargo is lifted at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT). There are no exit polls.
For the first time in his 20 years in office, opinion polls indicate that the populist Erdogan, 69, is entering a race trailing behind an opponent. Opinion surveys have given a slight lead to Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the joint candidate of a united opposition alliance. If neither candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the presidential race will be determined in a run-off on May 28.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, are eligible to vote in the elections, which are taking place the year Turkey marks the centenary of the establishment of the republic. Voter turnout in Turkey is traditionally strong, showing continued belief in this type of civic participation in a country where freedom of expression and assembly have been suppressed.
The elections come as the country is wracked by economic turmoil that critics blame on the government’s mishandling of the economy and a steep cost-of-living crisis.
Turkey is also reeling from the effects of a powerful earthquake that caused devastation in 11 southern provinces in February, killing more than 50,000 people in unsafe buildings. Erdogan’s government has been criticized for its delayed and stunted response to the disaster as well as the lax implementation of building codes that exacerbated the misery.
Internationally, the elections are being watched closely as a test of a united opposition’s ability to dislodge a leader who has concentrated nearly all powers of the state in his hands.
Erdogan has led a divisive election campaign, using state resources and his domineering position over media as in previous years. He has accused the opposition of colluding with “terrorists,” of being “drunkards” and of upholding LGBTQ rights which he says are a threat to traditional family values.
In a bid to woo voters hit hard by inflation, he has increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defense industry and infrastructure projects.
He has extended the political alliance of his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, with two nationalist parties to include a small leftist party and two marginal Islamist parties.
Kilicdaroglu’s six-party Nation Alliance, has promised to dismantle an executive presidential system narrowly voted in by a 2017 referendum that Erdogan installed and return the country to a parliamentary democracy. They have promised to establish the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, institute checks and balances and reverse the democratic backsliding and crackdowns on free speech and dissent under Erdogan.
The alliance includes the nationalist Good Party led by former interior minister Meral Aksener, and two parties that splintered from the AKP and are led by former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former finance minister Ali Babacan, as well as a small Islamist party.
The country’s main Kurdish political party, currently Turkey’s second largest opposition grouping that the government has targeted with arrests and lawsuits, is supporting Kilicdaroglu in the presidential race.
Also running for president is Sinan Ogan, a former academic who has the backing of an anti-immigrant nationalist party. One other candidate, the center-left politician Muharrem Ince dropped out of the race on Thursday following a significant drop in his ratings but his withdrawal was considered invalid by the country’s electoral board and votes for him will be counted.
Voters will also be casting ballots to fill seats in the 600-member parliament. The opposition would need at least a majority to be able to enact some of the democratic reforms it has promised.
Balloting in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquake has given rise to concern about the registration of nearly 9 million voters.
Around 3 million people have left the quake zone for other provinces, but only 133,000 people have registered to vote at their new locations. Political parties and non-governmental organizations planned to transport voters by bus but it was not clear how many would make the journey back.
Many of the quake survivors will cast votes in containers turned into makeshift polling stations erected on school yards.
This story originally appeared on NPR