ISTANBUL — Turkish strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faced the strongest challenge to his 20-year hold on power as preliminary results showed he narrowly failed to secure a majority win for a third term in Sunday’s election.
A runoff with his main rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties, will take place May 28. Sinan Oğan, who ran as an independent, placed third.
Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, reported Monday that Erdoğan had taken 49.35% percent of the vote while Kılıçdaroğlu earned 45%. Oğan had 5.22%, it said.
Erdoğan said he welcomed a runoff if that was the wish of the electorate.
He also expressed pride in what he called record turnout. “Turkey has once again proved that it’s one of the leading democracies in the world,” he said at his party’s headquarters.
The runoff in the Turkish Republic’s centenary year comes after some of the most hotly contested presidential and parliamentary elections in recent times.
Outside of Turkey, a NATO member, the results will reverberate after it maintained close ties with Russia and blocked Sweden’s membership in the defense alliance. It remains to be seen what the results mean regionally, too, as Turkey’s influence grows among its neighbors and the Muslim world as a whole.
For around 5 million new voters who have never known any other leader, the election was the chance for change in a country where Erdoğan’s AK Party has been in power since 2002. Erdoğan, 69, became prime minister the next year and president in 2014.
More than 64 million people, including 3.4 million overseas voters, were eligible to vote, and turnout, in a country where it is traditionally strong, was high.
Harun Armağan, a member of the AK Party Central Decision Making Board, said Sunday night that the results bode well for Erdogan.
“We can clearly see that it is a solid win for President Erdoğan and AK Party,” he said. “It is a night of victory for the millions of AK Party supporters in Turkey.”
Ahead of the election, the mood was buoyant in Istanbul.
“I just voted and am waiting for the results,” said Banu Yilmaz, 60, a retired banker.
Zafer Özi, 81, a retired pharmacist, said: “We hope this time something might change in our country. Because now I think people are more conscious.”
Turkey is still reeling from the fallout from two massive earthquakes in February, which caused devastation in 11 southern provinces and killed tens of thousands of people.
Erdoğan’s government has been criticized for its response to the disaster, as well as the lax implementation of building codes that worsened the misery.
A languishing economy, which critics have accused the government of mishandling, and a steep cost-of-living crisis also dominated the agenda, along with a backlash against millions of Syrian refugees, in the lead-up to the vote.
Erdoğan increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills in a bid to woo voters while leading a divisive campaign in which he accused the opposition of being “drunkards” who colluded with “terrorists.” He also attacked opponents for upholding LGBTQ rights, which he said were a threat to traditional family values.
Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, who has led the secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010, vowed to reverse Erdoğan’s policies and restore democracy.
A starkly different figure from Erdoğan, who is known for his bombastic speeches, he is soft-spoken and has built a reputation as a bridge builder. During the campaign he recorded videos in his kitchen in a bid to talk to voters.
His six-party Nation Alliance has promised to dismantle the executive presidential system narrowly voted in by a 2017 referendum. Erdoğan has since centralized power in a 1,000-room palace on the edge of Ankara, and it is from there that Turkey’s policies on economic, security, domestic and international affairs have been formulated.
Along with returning the country to a parliamentary democracy, Kılıçdaroğlu 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 under Erdoğan.
The alliance includes the nationalist Good Party, led by former Interior Minister Meral Akşener, and two parties that splintered from Erdoğan’s AK Party and are led by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Finance Minister Ali Babacan.
Also running for president was Sinan Oğan, a former academic who has the backing of an anti-immigrant nationalist party. Another candidate, the center-left politician Muharrem İnce, left the race Thursday after 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.
Neyran Elden reported from Istanbul and Henry Austin from London.