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Turkey votes amid questions over the elections’ integrity

Turkey held its breath on Sunday for the outcome of the elections that could consolidate Recep Tayip Erdogan’s power or deal him a bloody nose from an increasingly emboldened opposition.

Since early morning, people have cast their votes both for the president and parliament.

The elections mark Turkey’s transformation from a parliamentary to a presidential system after the constitutional changes approved in April 2017 to abolish the office of prime minister and reduce legislative power by giving the president extra authority.

The election campaign in Turkey this time was unfair but competitive. A preliminary report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the restrictions on freedom of association and speech.

Turkish media is almost completely owned by pro-government business groups, and the campaigns of opposition candidates were barely published or broadcast.

The pro-Kurdish HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas ran his campaign to be the next president from his prison cell. He has been in pre-trial detention since Nov. 2016 on terrorism charges.

Demirtas was a charismatic challenger against Erdogan in the previous presidential election when he was free and getting huge support not only from Kurds but from the liberal and socio-democrat segments of Turkish society.

The concerns about the elections’ integrity has topped the agenda during the campaigns. Some major changes to election procedures such as relocation of polling stations in south-eastern regions on security grounds and the validation of unsealed ballots have been criticized by a wide segment of society.

Allegations of vote rigging in the south-eastern province of Urfa, where four people have been killed in pre-election tensions, were immediately heard by the Supreme Electoral Board of Turkey, which said on Sunday that investigations had been opened about the claims.

“People are illegally placing mass votes and they are physically attacking election observers who attempt to prevent it,” said a young voter in the capital Ankara. “In which democratic country can ‘Votes Are Stolen in Urfa’ hashtag become a trend topic on Twitter in such a critical day?”

In the subsequent hours, a car stopped in the south-eastern town of Suruc, where three people carrying four bags with ballots were detained.

This is not the first time that Turkish elections have been marked by fraud allegations. The angry citizens have once again mobilized to prevent any further vote rigging under grassroots initiatives such as Vote and Beyond by becoming volunteer ballot observers and monitoring the vote registration processes.

Opposition-supporting social media users reminded others to not forget the misdeeds and the injustices that Erdogan’s ruling AKP committed during 16 years of its rule, such as silencing the media, steady weakening the rule of law and many illiberal practices in financial governance.

But the election campaign has given hope to Erdogan’s opponents that he is no longer invincible.

Millions of enthusiastic voters have felt encouraged enough to pour on to the streets for opposition election rallies.

The rising star during the campaign, Muharrem Ince, who is the candidate of the main opposition CHP, succeeded in gathering more than five million people in his latest rally in Istanbul, and an estimated three million participants in a rally in Izmir the day before.

The opposition attempted to capitalize on the economic concerns, made promises for social benefits and committed to broadening democratic rights while improving relations with Western allies.

One of the secrets behind Ince’s success was surely his non-polarizing political discourse, by giving strong signals that he would be the “president of all” when elected.

“I would like to raise my child in a democratic and free country. She cannot vote now because she is four years old, but I vote for her future,” said Nalan Celik, a secular CHP voter who attended Ince’s Izmir rally.

Although there are multiple scenarios for the outcome of the elections, according to most surveys the dominant scenario is Erdogan winning the first round and AKP and its nationalistic ally MHP forming the majority in the parliament.

However, given that there is still emergency rule in the country after the 2016 attempted coup and a spiral of silence among voters, the reliability of the polls is in question.