(CNN) — Neither Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his main rival appear to have secured 50% of the votes to win the elections, preliminary election results showed, raising the prospects of a runoff vote.
The state-run Anadolu news agency reported projections based on 90.54% of votes counted, showing Erdogan with 49.86% of the votes, compared to 44.38% for the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
The third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.30% of the votes, according to Anadolu, raising the possibility that he will be a kingmaker in a runoff. He tweeted that a second vote was “very possible,” and that “Turkish nationalists and Ataturkists are in an important position for this election.”
Sunday’s race poses the biggest challenge to Turkey’s strong leader. He faces economic problems and criticism that the impact of the devastating February 6 earthquake was exacerbated by poor building controls and a shambolic rescue effort.
The ballots of 64 million eligible voters were still being counted six hours after polling stations closed across the country.
For the first time, Turkey’s fractious opposition has come together with one candidate, Kilicdaroglu, representing an electoral coalition of six opposition parties.
Earlier on Sunday, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, who is the vice-presidential candidate for the main opposition bloc Nation Alliance, disputed Anadolu’s results, saying the agency could not be trusted. He added that opposition data showed that Kilicdaroglu was ahead of Erdogan.
Erdogan took to Twitter to ask his supporters to “stay at the ballot boxes, no matter what until the results are officially finalized.”
“While the election was held in a positive and democratic atmosphere and vote counting is still going on, trying to announce the results hastily means usurping the national will,” Erdogan tweeted.
Can Selcuki, managing director of the Istanbul Research Center told CNN’s Becky Anderson that a runoff is likely.
“I think it’s going to be a neck-to-neck race,” he said. “The odds are very high that it won’t end up in the first round – that’s what it looks like.”
A candidate must win more than 50% of the vote on Sunday night to be elected. Otherwise, Turkey will go to a run-off on May 28.
Voters line up outside a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey May 14, 2023.
An election representative prepares ballots at a polling station at a polling station in Istanbul.
Speaking to CNN from a polling station in Istanbul’s Beyogly district, voter Korhan Futaci, 46, said: “My vote is for freedom. My vote is for the future of our children. I hope.”
Yeliz Sahin, 46, whose brother and son died in the earthquake, said: “This is a historic moment that we have been waiting for for 20 years. This whole system needs to be changed.”
Meanwhile, first voter Eren Uzmele, 19, said: “The future of the country is in our hands. It’s in the hands of the youth.”
Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has vowed to fix Turkey’s ailing economy and restore democratic institutions compromised by the slide into authoritarianism during Erdogan’s tenure.
After voting in Istanbul, Erdogan told reporters: “We pray to God for a better future for our country, our nation, and Turkish democracy. It is very important for all our voters to vote until 17.00 at night without any worries for showing the strength of Turkish democracy.”
Meanwhile, after voting in Ankara, Kilicdaroglu said: “We have all missed democracy, being together and hugging each other so much. Hopefully, from now on you will see spring coming to this country and it will always continue.
Erdogan ended his election campaign on Saturday night by praying at the Hagia Sophia – a mosque and main historical site in Istanbul. In contrast, Kilicdaroglu visited the grave of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and staunch secularist.
Erdogan touts the virtues of his long rule, campaigning on a platform of stability, independent foreign policy and continuing to strengthen Turkey’s defense industry. Recently, he raised the wages of government workers by 45% and lowered the retirement age.
Over the past two years, Turkey’s currency has collapsed and prices have plunged, prompting a cost-of-living crisis that has eroded Erdogan’s conservative working-class support base.
When a devastating earthquake on February 6 devastated large parts of southeastern Turkey, Erdogan’s political aftershocks struck. His critics have chastised him for misguided rescue efforts and weak control over the development that his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party has led for two decades.
A view of blank ballots at a polling station in Ankara.
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Istanbul.
In the weeks after the earthquake, the government rounded up dozens of contractors, construction inspectors and project managers for violating building codes. Critics dismissed the move as scapegoating.
The government also apologized for “mistakes” made in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The earthquake claimed more than 51,000 lives in Turkey and neighboring Syria. Thousands remain unidentified, with unmarked graves littering Turkey’s southeastern countryside.
On Thursday, Kilicdaroglu was further bolstered by the late withdrawal from the race of a minor candidate, Muharrem Ince. Ince has low poll numbers but some opposition figures fear he will split the vote against Erdogan.
Turkey holds elections every five years. More than 1.8 million voters living abroad had already cast their ballots as of April 17, Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported on Wednesday, citing the country’s deputy foreign minister. More than 65 million Turks are eligible to vote.
Supreme Election Council (YSK) head Ahmet Yener said last month that at least 1 million voters in earthquake-hit areas were expected not to vote this year amid displacement.