Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave flags outside the AK Party headquarters, in Ankara, Turkey May 15, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Ankara: Turkey braced Monday for its first election runoff after a night of high drama showed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan edging ahead of his secular rival but failing to secure a first-round win.

Erdogan sounded triumphant as he emerged before a sea of supporters shortly after midnight to proclaim himself ready to lead the nation for another five years.

Almost complete results from Turkey's most important election of its post-Ottoman era showed Erdogan - in power since 2003 and undefeated in more than a dozen national votes - falling just short of the 50-percent threshold needed to win.

"I wholeheartedly believe that we will continue to serve our people in the coming five years," the 69-year-old leader said to huge cheers.

Turkey election

He also claimed his Islamic ruling party and its allies had captured a clear majority in parliament.

Figures from the Anadolu state news agency showed Erdogan picking up 49.3 percent of the vote.

Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was trailing with 45.0 percent - after late pre-election polls had shown him in the lead.

Turkey's first presidential runoff in state's 100-year history is planned for May 28.

Kilicdaroglu's camp had initially contested the vote count and claimed to be ahead.

But the 74-year-old looked slightly despondent as he faced reporters early Monday and admitted that a runoff seemed inevitable.

"If our nation says second round, we will absolutely win in the second round," he said.

"The will for change in the society is higher than 50 percent."

The lira fell against the dollar and euro on investor disappointment that Erdogan's era of unconventional economics may not be over.

Fervent support

Reported turnout approached 90 percent in what has become a referendum on Turkey's longest-serving leader and his party.

Erdogan has steered the nation of 85 million through one of its most transformative and divisive eras.

Turkey has grown into a military and geopolitical heavyweight that plays roles in conflicts from Syria to Ukraine.

The NATO member's footprint in both Europe and the Middle East makes the election's outcome as critical for Washington and Brussels as it is for Damascus and Moscow.

"The most important thing is that we do not divide Turkey," Istanbul voter Recep Turktan told AFP after casting his ballot.

"We will carry out our duty. I say, go on with Erdogan," the 67-year-old said.

Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance

The emergence of Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance - the type of broad-based coalition Erdogan excelled at forging throughout his career - gives foreign allies and Turkish voters a clear alternative.

A runoff in two weeks could give Erdogan time to regroup and reframe the debate.

But he would still be hounded by Turkey's most dire economic crisis since the 1990s.

Many are still also haunted by the trauma of the government's stuttering response to a February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.

Nursery schoolteacher Deniz Aydemir questioned how Turkey could be ruled by a coalition of six parties - a favourite attack line of Erdogan's during the campaign.

"Yes, there are high prices... but at least there is prosperity," the 46-year-old said.

Erdogan's campaign became increasingly tailored to his core supporters as election day neared.

Much of the attention will now focus on a little know independent candidate who has turned into a kingmaker by picking up five percent of the vote.

Sinan Ogan was expelled from an ultranationalist party that has since joined forces with Erdogan and entered the campaign a few months before the vote.

"We will not say if we will support this or that candidate," Ogan said Sunday. "We will hold consultations with their representatives and then decide."