By Express Tribune:
ANKARA: Turkey’s long-dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) was on track for a parliamentary majority on Sunday, according to first results from one of the country’s most critical elections in years.
The party founded by strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had won 51.8 percent of the vote with 52 percent of the ballot boxes counted, CNN-Turk television reported.
Opinion polls had predicted a replay of the June election when the AKP won just 40 percent of the vote, finding itself stripped of its parliamentary majority for the first time in 13 years.
Turks voted in large numbers, with the country deeply polarised in the face of surging Kurdish and violence and mounting concerns about democracy and the faltering economy.
“Whatever scenario materialises, the challenges facing Turkey are growing by the day,” said a report by the Brookings Institution think-tank.
It highlighted the problems of the Kurdish crisis, the parlous state of the economy and the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
The political landscape has changed dramatically in Turkey since June, with the country even more divided on ethnic and sectarian lines.
Many Turks are fearful of a return to all-out war with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels after fresh violence shattered a 2013 truce in July, just a month after a pro-Kurdish party won seats in parliament for the first time and denied Erdogan’s AKP a majority.
The threat of further violence also overshadowed the poll after a string of attacks blamed on the Islamic State group, including twin suicide bombings on an Ankara peace rally last month that killed 102 people — the bloodiest in Turkey’s modern history.
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Around 385,000 police and gendarmes were mobilised nationwide, with security particularly high in the restive Kurdish-majority southeast, where armoured vehicles and police were seen outside polling stations.
There were no major incidents although media reports said police fired tear gas on rivals from the AKP and the pro-Kurdish People’s Republican Party (HDP) brawling in a town near Istanbul.
Fifty-four million people were registered to vote, and there were queues at many polling stations visited by AFP.
The outcome is likely to determine the future of Erdogan — the divisive “big master” who has dominated Turkey’s political scene for more than a decade but is seen as increasingly autocratic.
The June result stymied his ambition to expand his role into a powerful US-style executive presidency that opponents fear would mean fewer checks and balances in what was once regarded as a model Muslim democracy.
He had vowed to respect Sunday’s result, saying: “Turkey has made great strides on the path to democracy and that will be bolstered once more in today’s election.”
However, a string of high-profile raids against media groups deemed hostile to Erdogan and the jailing of critical journalists have set alarm bells ringing about the state of democracy in a country that has long aspired to join the European Union (EU).
“We need a change of direction so we can breathe again. Turkey has become ungovernable,” said Ibrahim Yener, 34, as he cast his ballot in Ankara.
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Turkey is also struggling with its policy on neighbouring Syria which has left it at odds with its NATO allies, and the burden of more than two million people who have taken refuge from a war well into its fifth year.
After long supporting rebels fighting the Damascus regime, Ankara was cajoled into joining the US-led coalition against the IS group and launched its own “war on terrorism” targeting the militants as well as PKK fighters.
Turkey’s economy is also in trouble, with growth slowing sharply from the dizzy heights of five years ago, unemployment rising and the Turkish lira plunging more than 25 percent in value this year.
All eyes were on the performance of the HDP, which made history in June with its election breakthrough.
But it faces accusations of being a front for the PKK, whose armed campaign for autonomy has led to the deaths of 45,000 people since 1984.
“I hope the outcome of today’s election will raise hopes for peace. This is what Turkey needs the most right now. It’s in our people’s power to change our future, to have a stronger democracy,” said charismatic HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas.
AKP supporters are starting to celebrate at the party’s headquarters in Ankara, writes Kareem Shaheen.
Hundreds of supporters are gathering at the AKP’s offices to celebrate what appears to be a likely victory in the polls. There is a huge security cordon around the area and people are waving AKP and Turkey flags and chanting “Allahu akbar” and “in the name of Allah”.
“The world should realise the value of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the entire world,” said Hatice Tapan, a supporter in front of the building. “If only they knew him in person.”
“Turkey today has decided to take charge of its fate and its future,” said Orhan Ozsari, another supporter. “We aren’t thinking just of Turkey but the whole world. Turkey fights for the oppressed. The world is full of cruelty and Turkey will change that.
Another AKP voter said she was happy with the social services provided by the party.