Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held his last rally in Istanbul on Saturday, accusing the opposition of working with US President Joe Biden to oust him and appealing to voters to respond by voting in an election that is the biggest challenge to his 20-year rule.
Opinion polls show Erdoğan trailing the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a day before one of the most crucial elections in Türkiye modern history.
But if neither of them wins more than 50% of the vote, a run-off will be held on May 28.
Voters will also choose a new parliament in what is likely to be a tight race between the People’s Alliance made up of Erdoğan’s conservative Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, the Nationalist Movement Party and others on the one hand, and the Nation Alliance led by Kılıçdaroğlu made up of six opposition parties including the Republican People’s Party.
It’s a secular party founded by the founder of modern Türkiye, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand.
Polling stations opened at on Sunday 08:00 AM (05:00 GMT) and will close at 05:00 PM (1400 GMT) in the evening; indications are expected to emerge as to whether a run-off will take place.
Erdoğan’s campaign over the past month has focused on his government’s achievements in defense and infrastructure projects and his assertion that the opposition will back down from such achievements.
Among the points that Erdoğan focuses on in his speech is the issue that the opposition takes orders from the West and that its representatives will submit to the wishes of Western countries if they are elected.
At a rally in Istanbul’s Umraniye district, Erdoğan recalled statements made by US President Joe Biden and published by The New York Times in January 2020 during his election campaign to the White House.
At the time, Biden said Washington should encourage Erdoğan’s opponents to defeat him electorally, stressing that he should not be overthrown in a coup.
Ankara then denounced the statements as “interference” in its affairs.
Those statements reappeared later that year in a video that made Biden’s name the most popular on Twitter in Türkiye.
Erdoğan said, “Biden gave the order to topple Erdoğan, and I know that… And all my people know it… If that is the case, the response to Biden will also come via the ballots tomorrow”.
A State Department spokesman said Türkiye was a longtime ally of the United States and Washington would follow the elections closely, but added, “The United States doesn’t take sides in the elections”.
“Our only interest is the democratic process, which must be free and fair… We’re confident that the Turkish authorities will conduct the elections in line with their long-standing democratic traditions that they are proud of and with their laws,” the spokesman added.
Erdoğan also criticized Kılıçdaroğlu’s statements about Russia, describing Moscow as an important partner for Türkiye.
“Russia is one of our most important allies in terms of agricultural products,” he said.
Türkiye’s Western allies are alarmed by the closer relations between Ankara and Moscow under Erdoğan.
Türkiye is a member of NATO, which has stood firmly behind Kiev since Moscow invaded its neighbor last year.
Kılıçdaroğlu said on Friday that his party had conclusive evidence of Russia’s involvement in disseminating misleading content on the Internet using technology called “deep faking” ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections, but he didn’t provide evidence of that.
However, Erdoğan’s main rival added that if he wins the presidency, he will maintain Ankara’s good relations with Moscow.
Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Saturday, that Russia completely rejects the Turkish opposition leader’s accusations that Moscow interfered in the country’s presidential elections.
“We’re very disappointed by the statement of the opposition in Türkiye,” Peskov said, adding that Kılıçdaroğlu wouldn’t be able to provide evidence of the intervention because it doesn’t really exist.
Anticipation and excitement are running high among Turks ahead of the vote, with some worried about escalating tensions or even violence after the results are out.
While there was concern about Erdoğan’s reaction if he lost, the president said in a televised interview yesterday that he would accept the election result, whatever it is.
Kılıçdaroğlu, a 74-year-old former civil servant, didn’t hold an election rally on Saturday, but visited Atatürk’s mausoleum in Ankara with crowds of his supporters.
The president’s re-election efforts depended heavily on accusing the opposition of collaborating with Kurdish militants and with those, Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt.
Erdoğan said later, in the Qasim Pasha neighborhood in which he grew up in Istanbul and is also a stronghold of the Justice and Development Party, that Kılıçdaroğlu is a “separatist” and linked him to the whereabouts of the banned PKK leaders in the Qandil Mountains, whom he described as “terrorists”.
Kilicdaroglu denies such accusations.
Tensions escalated in the days leading up to the elections, and Kılıçdaroğlu wore a bulletproof vest during his meetings on Friday, in response to what his party said was information that he might be attacked.