(CNN) – Neither Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his main rival appear to have secured 50% of the vote to win the election, with early results raising the prospect of a runoff.
The state-run Anadolu news agency reported projections based on 90.54% of the votes counted, with Erdogan at 49.86%, compared to 44.38% for the main opposition candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, received 5.30% of the vote, according to Anadolu, raising his chances of becoming a kingmaker. He tweeted that a second referendum was “highly likely” and that “Turkish nationalists and Ataturkists are key to this election.”
Sunday’s match is the biggest challenge yet for Turkey’s formidable leader. He faces criticism and economic interventions that the impact of the devastating earthquake on February 6 was exacerbated by lax building regulations and ridiculous recovery efforts.
Six hours after polling stations closed across the country, 64 million eligible votes were still being counted.
For the first time, Turkey’s opposition has coalesced around Kilicdaroglu, a single candidate representing an electoral coalition of six opposition parties.
Earlier on Sunday, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, who is a vice-presidential candidate for the main opposition Nation Alliance constituency, contested Anadolu’s decisions, saying the company was unreliable. He said opposition data showed Kilikdaroglu ahead of Erdogan.
Erdogan asked his supporters on Twitter to “stay in the ballot boxes no matter what until the results are officially finalised”.
“Despite the election being held in such a positive and democratic atmosphere and counting of votes still going on, trying to hastily announce the results is a usurpation of the national will,” Erdogan tweeted.
Can Selcuki, executive director of the Istanbul Research Center, told CNN’s Becky Anderson that a run is likely.
“I think it’s going to be a neck-to-neck race,” he said. “There’s a high chance it won’t end up in the first round – that’s what it looks like.”
A candidate must get 50% of the votes on Sunday night to be elected. Otherwise Turkey will face the run-off on May 28.
Voters line up outside a polling station on May 14, 2023 in Istanbul, Turkey.
An election representative prepares ballots at a polling station in a polling station in Istanbul.
“My vote is for freedom,” voter Korhan Futasi, 46, told CNN from a polling station in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district. My vote is for the future of our children. I am confident.
Yelis Sahin, 46, whose brother and son died in the earthquake: “This is a historic moment, we have been waiting for 20 years. This whole system needs to be changed.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Eren Uzmele, who voted for the first time, said: “The future of the country is in our hands. It is in the hands of the youth,” he said.
Kilicdaroglu, a mild-mannered 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has promised to fix Turkey’s sagging economy and restore democratic institutions compromised by Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism.
After voting in Istanbul, Erdogan told reporters: “We pray to God for a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy. To prove the strength of Turkish democracy, it is very important that all our voters vote without any worries till 17.00 pm.
Meanwhile, after voting in Ankara, Kilicdaroglu said: “We all missed democracy, being together and embracing so much. I hope you will see spring come to this country from now on and will continue to do so forever.
Erdogan ended his election campaign on Saturday night with a prayer at Hagia Sophia, a mosque and major historical site in Istanbul. In contrast, Kıltaroğlu visited the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and a radical secularist.
Erdogan extols the virtues of his long rule, including stability, an independent foreign policy and the continued development of Turkey’s defense sector. Recently, he raised the wages of civil servants by 45% and lowered the retirement age.
Over the past two years, Turkey’s currency has fallen and prices have ballooned, fueling a cost-of-living crisis that has alienated Erdogan’s conservative, working-class support base.
Erdogan faced political setbacks on February 6 when a devastating earthquake laid waste to large parts of southeastern Turkey. His critics chastised him for a poor recovery effort and lax building regulations led by his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party for two decades.
A view of empty ballot papers 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 sacrificial.
The government has apologized for “mistakes” in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
The earthquake killed 51,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. Thousands more remain undiscovered by unidentified graves in the southeastern Turkish countryside.
On Thursday, Kilicdaroglu was further strengthened by the late withdrawal of minor candidate Muharrem Ince from the race. Despite his low turnout, some opposition figures feared he would split the anti-Erdogan vote.
Elections are held every five years in Turkey. More than 1.8 million voters living abroad have already cast their ballots on April 17, Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported Wednesday, citing the country’s deputy foreign minister. 65 million Turks are eligible to vote.
Supreme Election Council (YSK) chairman Ahmet Yener said last month that at least 1 million voters in earthquake-hit areas are expected not to vote this year amid migration.