ISTANBUL — Turkish polling stations closed Sunday in a historic runoff election that could extend President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's two decades of dominant but divisive Islamic style of rule until 2028.
The NATO member's longest-serving leader defied critics and doubters by emerging with a comfortable lead against his secular challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the first round on May 14.
Kilicdaroglu cobbled together a powerful coalition that grouped Erdogan's disenchanted former allies with secular nationalists and religious conservatives.
Opposition supporters viewed it as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a man whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.
"I invite all my citizens to cast their ballot in order to get rid of this authoritarian regime and bring true freedom and democracy to this country," Kilicdaroglu said after casting his ballot in Turkey's first presidential runoff.
Erdogan's almost five-point first-round lead came in the face of one of the world's worst cost-of-living crises—and with almost every opinion poll predicting his defeat.
The 69-year-old looked tired but at ease as he voted with his wife Emine in a conservative district of Istanbul.
"I ask my citizens to turn out and vote without complacency," Erdogan said.
Emir Bilgin heeded the Turkish leader's call.
"I'm going to vote for Erdogan. There's no one else like him," the 24-year-old said from a working-class Istanbul neighborhood where the young future president grew up playing street football.
Kilicdaroglu re-emerged a transformed man after the first round.
The former civil servant's message of social unity and freedoms gave way to desk-thumping speeches about the need to immediately expel migrants and fight terrorism.
His right-wing turn was targeted at nationalists who emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary elections.
The 74-year-old had always adhered to the firm nationalist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—a revered military commander who formed Turkey and Kilicdaroglu's secular CHP party.
But these had played a secondary role to his promotion of socially liberal values practiced by younger voters and big-city residents.
Analysts question whether Kilicdaroglu's gamble will work.
His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party that Erdogan portrays as the political wing of banned militants left him exposed to charges of working with "terrorists."
And Kilicdaroglu's courtship of Turkey's hard right was hampered by the endorsement Erdogan received from an ultra-nationalist who finished third two weeks ago.
Some opposition supporters sounded defeated after emerging from the polls.
"Today is not like the last time. I was more excited then," Bayram Ali Yuce said in one of Istanbul's heavily anti-Erdogan neighborhoods.
"The outcome seems more obvious now. But I still voted."
Champion of poor
Erdogan is lionized by poorer and more rural swathes of Turkey's fractured society because of his promotion of religious freedoms and modernization of once-dilapidated cities in the Anatolian heartland.
"It was important for me to keep what was gained over the past 20 years in Turkey," company director Mehmet Emin Ayaz told AFP in Ankara.
"Turkey isn't what it was in the old days. There is a new Turkey today," the 64-year-old said.
But Erdogan has caused growing consternation across the Western world because of his crackdowns on dissent and pursuit of a muscular foreign policy.
He launched military incursions into Syria that infuriated European powers and put Turkish soldiers on the opposite side of Kurdish forces supported by the United States.
His personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has also survived the Kremlin's war on Ukraine.
Turkey's troubled economy is benefiting from a crucial deferment of payment on Russian energy imports that helped Erdogan spend lavishly on campaign pledges this year.
Erdogan also delayed Finland's membership of NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the US-led defense bloc.
'Day of reckoning'
Turkey's unraveling economy will pose the most immediate test for whoever wins the vote.
Erdogan went through a series of central bankers to find one who would enact his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021—flouting conventional economics in the belief that lower rates can cure chronically high inflation.
Turkey's currency soon entered freefall and the annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year.
Erdogan has promised to continue these policies and rejected predictions of economic peril from analysts.
Turkey burned through tens of billions of dollars trying to support the lira from politically sensitive falls ahead of the vote.
Many analysts say Turkey must now hike interest rates or abandon its attempts to support the lira.
"The day of reckoning for Turkey's economy and financial markets may now just be around the corner," analysts at Capital Economics warned. — AFP