ISTANBUL — From the Aegean coast to the mountainous frontier with Iran, millions of Turks will vote at the country’s 191,884 ballot boxes on Sunday — with both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu warning the country is at a historical turning point.

In the last sprints of the nail-bitingly close election race, the dueling candidates have both placed heavy emphasis on the historical resonance of the vote falling exactly 100 years after the foundation of the secular Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923.

In the Istanbul district of Ümraniye on the final day of campaigning, Erdoğan told voters the country was on “the threshold of a Turkish Century” that will be the “century of our children, our youth, our women.”

Erdoğan’s talk of a Turkish century is partly a pledge to make the country stronger and more technologically independent, particularly in the defense sector. Over the past months, the president has been quick to associate himself with the domestically-manufactured Togg electric car, the “Kaan” fighter jet and Anadolu, the country’s first aircraft carrier.

But Erdoğan’s Turkish century is about more than home-grown planes and ships. Few people doubt Erdoğan sees 2023 as a key threshold to accelerate his push away from Atatürk’s secular legacy and toward a more religiously conservative nation. Indeed, his campaign has been characterized by a heavy emphasis on family values and bitter rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community.  

The state that Atatürk forged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923 was secular and modernizing, often along Western models, with the introduction of Latin letters and even the banning of the fez in favor of Western-style hats. In this regard, the Islamist populist Erdoğan is miles from the ballroom-dancing, rakı-quaffing field marshal Atatürk.

The 2023 election is widely being cast as a decisive referendum on which vision for Turkey will win through, and Erdoğan has been keen to portray the opposition as sell-outs to the West and global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “Are you ready to bury those who promised to give over the country’s values ​​to foreigners and loan sharks at the ballot box?” he called out to the crowd in Ümraniye.

This is not a man who is casting himself as the West’s ally. Resisting pressure that Ankara should not cozy up so much to the Kremlin, Erdoğan snapped on Friday that he would “not accept” the opposition’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin — after Kılıçdaroğlu complained of Russian meddling in the election.

Revealing he ended his campaign in Hagia Sophia — once Constantinople’s greatest church — which he reconverted from a museum back into a mosque, as it had been in Ottoman times.    

All about Atatürk

By contrast, Erdogan’s main rival Kılıçdaroğlu is trying to assume the full mantle of Atatürk, and is stressing the need to put the country back on the path toward European democratic norms after Erdoğan’s lurch toward authoritarianism.

Speaking from a rain-swept stage in Ankara on Friday night, the 74-year-old bureaucrat declared: “We will make all of Turkey Mustafa Kemal’s [Atatürk’s] Turkey!”

In his speech, he slammed Erdoğan for giving Turkey over to drug runners and crony networks of oligarch construction bosses, saying the country had no place for “robbers.” Symbolically, he chided the president for ruling from his 1,150-room presidential complex — dubbed the Saray or palace — and said that he would rule from than the more modest Çankaya mansion that Atatürk used for his presidency.

Warming to his theme of Turkey’s “second century,” Kılıçdaroğlu posted a video in the early hours of Saturday morning, urging young people to fully embrace the founding father’s vision. After all, he hails from the CHP part that Atatürk founded.

“We are entering the second century, young ones. And now we have a new generation, we have you. We have to decide altogether: Will we be among those who only commemorate Atatürk — like in the first century — or those who understand him in this century? This generation will be of those who understand,” he said, speaking in his trademark grandfatherly tone from his book-lined study.

In diametric opposition to Erdoğan, who has detained opponents and exerts heavy influence over the judiciary and the media, Kılıçdaroğlu is insisting that he will push Turkey to adopt the kind of reforms needed to move toward EU membership.

When asked by POLITICO whether that could backfire because some hostile EU countries would always block Turkish membership, he said the reforms themselves were the most important element for Turkey’s future.

“It does not matter whether the EU takes us in or not. What matters is bringing all the democratic standards that the EU foresees to our country,” he said in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of a rally in the central city of Sivas. “We are part of Western civilization. So the EU may accept us or not, but we will bring those democratic standards. The EU needs Turkey.”

Off to the polls

Polling stations — which are set up in public schools — open at 8 a.m. on election day and close at 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. media can start reporting, and unofficial results are expected to start trickling in around midnight.

The mood is cautious, with rumors swirling that internet use could be restricted or there could be trouble on the streets if there are disputes over the result.

The fears of some kind of trouble have only grown after reports of potential military or governmental involvement in the voting process.

Two days before the election, the CHP accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of preparing election manipulation. The main opposition party said Soylu had called on governors to seek army support on election night. Soylu made no public response.  

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) has rejected the interior ministry’s request to collect and store election results on its own database. The YSK also banned the police and gendarmerie from collecting election results. 

Erdoğan himself sought to downplay any fears of a stolen election. In front of a studio audience of young people on Friday, he dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that he might not leave office if he lost. “We came to power in Turkey by democratic means and by the courtesy of people. If they make a different decision whatever the democracy requires we will do it,” said the president, looking unusually gaunt, perhaps still knocked back by what his party said was a bout of gastroenteritis during the campaign.

The opposition is vowing to keep close tabs on all of the polling stations to try to prevent any fraud.

In Esenyurt Cumhuriyet Square, in the European part of Istanbul, a group of high-school students gathered on Saturday morning to greet Ekrem İmamoğlu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, who would be one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s vice presidents if he were to win.

Ilayda, 18, said she would vote for the opposition because of its position on democracy, justice and women’s rights.

When asked what would happen if Erdoğan won, she replied: “We plan to start a deep mourning. Our country as we know it will not be there anymore.”

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