Turks vote in 1st direct presidential election
Istanbul - Turks voted on Sunday in their first direct presidential election, a watershed event in the country's 91-year history that could cement Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position as Turkey's all-powerful leader.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is the strong front-runner to replace incumbent Abdullah Gul for a five-year term.
Now in his third term as prime minister at the head of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Erdogan has been a polarising figure. He is fervently supported by many as a man of the people who has led Turkey through a period of economic prosperity. Yet critics view him as an increasingly autocratic leader bent on concentrating power and imposing his religious and conservative views on a country founded on strong secular traditions.
'Leave the old Turkey behind'
After a bitter and divisive pre-election campaign, Erdogan sounded more conciliatory in his final campaign speech on Saturday, promising to "leave the old Turkey behind."
"This country of 77 million is our country, there is no discrimination," he said. "We own this country all together."
Some 53 million people are eligible to vote; an absolute majority is needed to win. Otherwise, the top two candidates go to a runoff on 24 August.
Erdogan, whose party won local elections in March with about 43% of the vote, is widely expected to be elected, although it is unclear if he can avoid a runoff.
Party rules barred Erdogan from serving another term as prime minister. Turkish presidents used to be elected by parliament but Erdogan's government pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2007, changing the procedure to a popular vote.
Previously a ceremonial role, Erdogan has vowed to transform the presidency into a powerful position - something his detractors point to as proof he is bent on a power grab. He has said he will activate the post's rarely used dormant powers - a legacy of a 1980 coup - including the ability to call parliament and summon and preside over Cabinet meetings.
Erdogan's main challenger is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old academic and former head of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation who is backed by several opposition parties, including the two main ones: a pro-secular party and a nationalist one.
Ihsanoglu, whose campaign has focused on a message of unity, said some irregularities had been reported in early voting on Sunday, with some voters photographing their stamped ballots with their mobile phones. The implication is they would use the photos to prove which party they voted for and receive favours in return.
An official complaint would be filed, Ihsanoglu said.
"The eyes of the whole world are upon us," he said after voting in Istanbul. "[Turkey] has been striving to become a first-class democracy ... and hopefully Turkey will achieve this today."