(CN) – With his country in a state of emergency and one opponent in prison, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory Sunday after barely surpassing the 50 percent threshold needed to avert run-off elections.
Erdogan’s victory extends his 15-year rule and expands his already formidable executive power.
“The race wasn’t fair, campaign conditions weren’t equal, but Erdogan won,” the president’s closest rival, Muharrem Ince, texted one reporter.
For all of the election’s shortcomings, more than 86 percent of Turkish citizens exercised their right to vote, a turnout that the government heralded in defense of its democratic institutions.
One viral video showed a man carrying his 80-year-old father on his back to cast a ballot. The People’s Democratic Party, a Kurdish opposition group known as the HDP, showed villagers traveling 15 miles to the nearest polling station, hurdling what many criticized as a bid to suppress their vote.
Running from Silivri prison in Istanbul on terrorism charges, the party’s candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, scraped by the 10 percent threshold to win his party parliamentary representation.
These modest gains by Turkey’s opposition represented surprising victories in a stacked contest. Before Erdogan fast-tracked the schedule to kneecap the opposition, Sunday’s snap elections were originally meant to be held in 2019.
None of the opposition candidates received fair or equal time on the Turkish airwaves. Erdogan’s Turkey jails more reporters than any other country in the world, and its media remains largely consolidated by the president’s allies.
Ince drew millions to his rallies and shattered a Turkish press blackout through social media, charismatic leadership and a message of hope that rejected what he called Erdogan’s “society of fear.”
Since a failed coup attempt in mid-2016, Erdogan has imposed a state of emergency rule that he has deployed against his political opponents, in purges that have driven tens of thousands into imprisonment or exile.
While Erdogan made a campaign promise to lift that emergency rule, observers note that his victory gives him new powers over the judiciary and legislature that make it unnecessary.