Turkey braced Monday for its first election runoff after a night of high drama showed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan edging ahead of his secular rival but failing to secure a first-round win.
Erdogan sounded triumphant as he emerged before a sea of supporters shortly after midnight to proclaim himself ready to lead the nation for another five years.
Almost complete results from Turkey’s most important election of its post-Ottoman era showed Erdogan — in power since 2003 and undefeated in more than a dozen national votes — falling just short of the 50-percent threshold needed.
“I wholeheartedly believe that we will continue to serve our people in the coming five years,” the 69-year-old leader said to huge cheers.
He also claimed his Islamic-ruling party its ultranationalist allies had captured a clear majority in parliament.
Figures from the Anadolu state news agency showed Erdogan picking up 49.4 percent of the vote.
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was trailing with 45.0 percent — a disappointing outcome after late pre-election polls showed him in the lead.
Turkey’s first presidential runoff in the mostly Muslim but officially secular state’s 100-year history is planned for May 28.
Kilicdaroglu’s camp had initially contested the vote count and claimed to be in the lead.
But the 74-year-old looked slightly despondent as he faced reporters early Monday and admitted that a runoff seemed inevitable.
“If our nation says second round, we will absolutely win in the second round,” he said.
“The will for change in the society is higher than 50 percent.”
Turnout was expected to reach 90 percent in what has become a referendum on Turkey’s longest-serving leader and his Islamic-rooted party.
Erdogan has steered the nation of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras.
Turkey has grown into a military and geopolitical heavyweight that plays roles in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine.
The NATO member’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East makes the election’s outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.
Erdogan is lionised across swathes of conservative Turkey that witnessed a development boom during his rule.
More religious voters are also grateful for his decision to lift secular-era restrictions on headscarves and introduce more Islamic schools.
“The most important thing is that we do not divide Turkey,” Istanbul voter Recep Turktan told AFP after casting his ballot for the Turkish leaders.
“We will carry out our duty. I say, go on with Erdogan,” the 67-year-old said.
‘We all missed democracy’
Erdogan’s first decade of economic revival and warming relations with Europe was followed by a second one filled with social and political turmoil.
He responded to a failed 2016 coup attempt with sweeping purges that sent chills through Turkish society and made him an increasingly uncomfortable partner for the West.
The emergence of Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance — the type of broad-based coalition Erdogan excelled at forging throughout his career — gives foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative.
A runoff in two weeks could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate.
But he would still be hounded by Turkey’s most dire economic crisis of his time in power, and disquiet over his government’s stuttering response to the February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
“We all missed democracy,” Kilicdaroglu said after voting in the capital Ankara. “You will see, God willing, spring will come to this country.”
‘Can’t see my future’
Pre-election polls indicated Kilicdaroglu would win the youth vote — nearly 10 percent of the electorate — by a two-to-one margin.
“I can’t see my future,” university student Kivanc Dal, 18, told AFP in Istanbul on the eve of the vote.
Erdogan “can build as many tanks and weapons as he wants, but I have no respect for that as long as there is no penny in my pocket”.
But nursery schoolteacher Deniz Aydemir said Erdogan would get her vote because of the economic and social progress Turkey made after half a century of corruption-riddled secular rule.
The 46-year-old also questioned how a country could be ruled by a coalition of six parties — a favourite attack line of Erdogan’s during the campaign.
“Yes, there are high prices… but at least there is prosperity,” she said.
Erdogan’s campaign became increasingly tailored to his core supporters as election day neared.
He branded the opposition a “pro-LGBT” lobby that took orders from outlawed Kurdish militants and was bankrolled by the West.
Erdogan’s ministers and pro-government media referred darkly to a Western “political coup” plot.
The opposition began to worry that Erdogan was trying to hold on to power at any cost.
Erdogan bristled when asked if he would agree to leave if he lost.
“This is a very silly question,” he said on the eve of the vote. “We would do what democracy requires.”
This story originally appeared on France24