20230514 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Credit: AFP

Ankara: Turkey's landmark election headed Sunday to a likely runoff following a stormy night in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's secular rivals contested the ballot count.

The Anadolu state news agency showed the 69-year-old conservative leader on 49.86 percent and his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu trailing with 44.38 percent.

Anadolu's figures were based on a count of 90.6 percent of the ballot.

One or other of the candidates needed to break the 50-percent threshold to avoid Turkey going to its first election runoff in the post-Ottoman republic's 100-year history on May 28.

But the secular opposition camp spearheaded by Kilicdaroglu cried foul.

"We are leading," the 74-year-old tweeted.

Leading opposition figures said the government was purposely slowing down the count in districts where Kilicdaroglu was enjoying strong support.

"They are contesting the count emerging from ballot boxes where we are massively ahead," Istanbul's opposition mayor Ekrem Imamoglu told reporters.

Imamoglu said the opposition's internal vote count showed Kilicdaroglu picking up 49 percent of the vote and Erdogan just 45.

But neither the state media count nor the one presented by the opposition avoids the possibility of Turkey holding another presidential vote in two weeks.

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Erdogan, Turkey's longest-serving leader, has molded the NATO member into a regional power that plays a growing role from Ukraine to Syria. But increasingly erratic economic policies have left the 69-year-old incumbent vulnerable to voter resentment after an inflation crisis last year gutted household budgets.

Kilicdaroglu, 74, has the backing of the nation's broadest-ever grouping of opposition parties. He is running on a promise to restore the rule of law, mend strained ties with the West and return to economic orthodoxy.

The world's money managers are waiting for the election's outcome to decide whether Turkey becomes a "buy" again. Foreign money flooded Turkey's equity and debt markets during Erdogan's first decade in power, but investors exited in recent years as Erdogan's growth-at-all-costs policies debased the nation's currency.