ISTANBUL: Turks went to the polls in a snap parliamentary election on Sunday under the shadow of mounting internal bloodshed and economic worries, a vote that could determine the trajectory of the polarized country and of President Tayyip Erdogan.
The vote is the second in five months, after the AK Party founded by Erdogan lost in June the single-party governing majority it has enjoyed since first coming to power in 2002.
Since then, a ceasefire with Kurdish militants has collapsed, the war in neighboring Syria has worsened and Turkey – a NATO member state – has been hit by two Islamic State-linked suicide bomb attacks that killed more than 130 people.
Investors and Western allies hope the vote will help restore stability as well as confidence in the economy, allowing Ankara to play a more effective role in stemming a flood of refugees from neighboring wars into Europe and helping in the battle against Islamic State militants.
This time, there have been few of the flags, posters and campaign buses that thronged the streets in the build-up to June’s vote. But Erdogan has framed this somber re-run as a pivotal opportunity for Turkey to return to single-party AKP rule after months of political uncertainty.
“It is obvious in today’s election how beneficial stability is for our nation and today our citizens will make their choice based on this,” Erdogan told reporters after voting in his home district of Camlica on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Flanked by his wife in a gold-colored headscarf, he voted under tight security with snipers watching from nearby rooftops.
Voters were sharply divided in their views on a return to single-party rule or the prospect of a coalition.
“The little welfare, better living conditions, bigger house and fancier appliances we have, we all owe it to AK Party and Erdogan,” said Nurcan Gunduz, 24, at the airport in Ankara.
“Look at the state of the country after the June 7 election results and we didn’t even have a coalition government. I can’t imagine how worse it would be if we did have it.”
But 62-year-old Yasar, a retired laborer now working as a shoeshine man outside a mosque in the conservative Istanbul district of Uskudar, said he switched his vote to the main opposition CHP in hopes of a coalition.
“I have given up on the AKP,” he said. “The honest party is the CHP. The country needs to heal its wounds and a coalition is the best way.”
Some Western allies, foreign investors and Turks see an AKP coalition with the CHP as the best hope of easing sharp divisions in the EU-candidate nation, and say it could keep Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts in check.
VOTING RESULTS LATER IN DAY
Voting began in eastern Turkey at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and an hour later elsewhere, with polling stations to close at 1400 GMT. A ban on announcing results applies until 1800 GMT but the election board usually lifts the ban before the official time.
The election was prompted by the AKP’s inability to find a junior coalition partner after the June outcome. Erdogan’s critics say it represents a gamble by the combative leader to win back enough support so the party can eventually change the constitution and give him greater presidential powers.
Many polls suggest that while support for the center-right, Islamist-rooted AKP may have inched up, the result is unlikely to be dramatically different to June, when it took 40.9 percent of the vote.
However, one survey released on Thursday suggested there had been a late surge in backing for the AKP and that it could take as much as 47.2 percent, comfortably enough to secure more than half of the 550-seat parliament.
Whatever the outcome, deep polarization in Turkey – between pious conservatives who champion Erdogan as a hero of the working class, and Western-facing secularists suspicious of his authoritarianism and Islamist ideals – is likely to remain.
“The political uncertainty, growing social divisions and insecurity which has characterized the period between the two elections seems set to continue,” Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based think-tank CSIS, said in a note on Friday.
If the AKP fails again to secure a single-party majority, it may be forced back to the negotiating table with either the main secularist CHP opposition or the nationalist MHP.
The pro-Kurdish HDP, which entered parliament as a party for the first time in June, scaled back its election campaign after its supporters were targeted in the Ankara suicide bomb attack that killed more than 100 people.
“What all Turkey wants and needs more than anything is peace and calm,” HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas said after voting in Istanbul. “I hope good election results will give solace to the suffering families of those who gave their lives for peace, freedom and democracy.”
Violence between security forces and Kurdish militants has beset the mainly Kurdish southeast since a ceasefire unraveled in July but the region was peaceful in the early hours of voting on Sunday, with no reports of unrest.
Security was tight at polling stations across the southeast, with special forces deployed in the Diyarbakir district of Sur, the scene of curfews in recent weeks, witnesses said.
AKP officials are hoping the turbulence of recent months will steer voters who remember the fragile coalition governments of the 1990s back to the AKP, and are betting that a recent crackdown on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will claw back nationalist votes.
Turkey jets bombed Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria on Saturday ahead of the election and state-run Anadolu Agency said more than 50 IS militants were killed.