ANKARA, Turkey — It’s one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in recent times, but at the Arjantin İlkokulu elementary school in Turkey’s capital Ankara, the mood was quiet, orderly and calm.
There was no pushing and shoving as voters waited in short lines to decide whether the country’s long-time leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stretches his rule into a third decade or is unseated by challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has promised to restore a more democratic society. Continuity or change?
“I hope it will be good for Turkey,” said geologist Salami Toprak, 67, shortly after he voted. “Let’s see what’s gonna come out.” He added that he was thinking about the next generation as he cast his ballot.
Closely watched from Washington and Kyiv to Moscow and Beijing, the runoff in the Turkish Republic’s centenary year, come s after neither candidate was able to secure more than 50% of the votes in the first ballot on May 14, Erdoğan falling short by a miniscule amount.
Kilicdaroglu, 74, has described the run-off as a referendum on the country’s future. The leader of the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010 is a starkly different figure from Erdoğan, who is known for his bombastic speeches. Softly spoken, he has a reputation as a bridge builder.
As well as returning the country to a parliamentary democracy, Kilicdaroglu and the alliance 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.
But Erdoğan is favored to win, after his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) retained a majority in parliament in the elections earlier this month.
Initially however, he had trailed in opinion polls during a campaign dominated by the fallout from the devastating earthquake that left over 50,000 dead earlier this year and the country’s economic turmoil.
Erdoğan increased wages and pensions ahead of the election’s first round, and subsidized electricity costs and gas bills in an attempt to woo voters who have faced a steep cost-of-living and currency crisis precipitated by numerous rate cuts by the government in an attempt to boost exports.
Immigration has also been high on the agenda and both candidates have sought to bolster their nationalist credentials ahead of the runoff.
Ahead of the first vote, Kilicdaroglu said he intended to repatriate refugees within two years by creating favorable conditions for their return. But he has since toughened his stance and vowed to send all refugees home once he was elected president.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, courted and won the backing of the nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, the former academic who was backed for president by an anti-migrant party but was eliminated after finishing third in the first round of voting. On the campaign trail, Ogan said he would consider sending migrants back by force if necessary.
While the economy and migration were important issues, “Erdoğan managed to securitize the elections and convinced his base that national security was at stake,” said Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer on Turkey, Oxford University in the U.K., author of “Turkey under Erdoğan.” He added that “identity politics revolving around ethnicity and religion” had determined much of the allocation of the votes.
The results will also have myriad ramifications outside Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Turkey boasts NATO’s second largest armed forces after the U.S., it controls the crucial Bosporus Strait, and it is widely believed to host U.S. nuclear missiles on its soil.
Despite being a NATO member, the country has maintained close ties with Russia and has blocked Sweden’s membership of the Western military alliance.
An Erdoğan win would likely deepen the country’s relationship with Moscow, according to Nilgun Arisan Eralp, the director at the Center for E.U. studies at the Economic Policy Research Institute of Turkey in Ankara.
“Given the dire straits the economy is in, Russian money will be needed for the regime to continue,” Eralp said, adding that it was likely he would continue to reject Swedish membership of NATO, damaging relations with the United States and drawing the country closer to the Kremlin.
Ankara has long accused Sweden of harboring militants from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which is a designated terrorist group in Turkey, Sweden, and the United States.
Ahead of the vote, Ergun Yayla, a taxi driver from Istanbul said Saturday that he planned to vote for Erdogan.
“I think a political change might be good in our country, but as there is nobody else that I think who is honest and who could be successful,” said Yayla, 55.
“The opposition is very weak and they will never win.”
Matt Bradley and Paul Goldman reported from Ankara. Leila Sackur reported from London.
Matt Bradley is a London-based foreign correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.
Paul Goldman is a Tel Aviv-based producer and video editor for NBC News.
Neyran Elden contributed.
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