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Turkey Vote Ends, Erdogan May Win Mandate to Change Constitution

Turkey's Republican People's Party Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu
Leader of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party Kemal Kilicdaroglu greets supporters during an election campaign tour of Ankara. Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

Voting ended in Turkey’s general election with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely to get a mandate to reshape the secular constitution amid an economic boom that contrasts with upheavals to the east and west.

Polls closed at 5 p.m. and partial results are expected within a few hours. Voters had queued up outside schools and other polling sites across the Muslim country of 73.7 million people, with 50 million registered to cast ballots for 550 deputies to parliament.

Erdogan’s priority for the new term, which could make him the longest-serving leader since Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is to replace the constitution drafted after a 1980 coup. That would cement his victory over generals who accuse him of imposing Islamic values. Erdogan also pledges to lift Turkey, currently the world’s 16th-biggest economy after annual growth of more than 5 percent under his government, into the top 10 by 2023 when the republic celebrates its centenary.

“This election is different from the previous two, the first one was in the aftermath of a financial crisis and the last one was after a serious spat with the military,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst at the Eurasia Group, which monitors political risk. While Erdogan will win, “what’s more important is the distribution of seats,” he said. “The parliamentary mathematics will be crucial.”

Opinion Polls

The governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, may win 49 percent of the popular vote, almost double the 26 percent backing for the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, according to the average of four surveys by researchers Pollmark, Sonar, Konsensus and Genar. The studies were carried out between May 17 and May 31. The AKP came to power with 34 percent of the vote in 2002 and won 47 percent four years ago.

Erdogan’s plan for a new constitution has been a central campaign issue. He argues for shifting from the current parliamentary system to a presidential one, in which he himself would be the leading candidate for the top job. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has criticized the government for its record on poverty reduction and says Erdogan is showing an increasingly authoritarian streak.

The premier voted today in Istanbul, the city of 13 million people where he served as mayor more than a decade ago.

“We hope this election will be an opportunity to strengthen basic rights and freedoms,” Erdogan said at the polling station at a school in Uskudar, a middle class neighborhood flanking the Bosporus waterway on the Asian side of Istanbul, which straddles two continents.

New Constitution

Erdogan, 57, would need 330 votes in the parliament to put a new constitution to a public vote, and 367 to pass it straight into law.

The premier said June 5 he would “find it unnecessary” to hold a referendum if he wins a big enough majority to change the constitution without one. He currently holds 331 seats and would win 338 based on the four-poll average, according to an application that simulates election outcomes developed by the Ari Movement, an Istanbul think-tank.

“If AKP remains slightly below 330 seats that would be the best outcome from a market point of view,” Eurasia’s Piccoli said in a telephone interview. “It will force the party to try to seek a compromise on the constitution, and possibly to actually shelve the constitutional plan, which means they’re going to have more time, more focus on economic matters.”

On the $740 billion economy, Erdogan’s third-term challenges will include a widening trade gap that threatens a halt to Turkey’s boom. The current account deficit ballooned to more than $60 billion, or about 8 percent of gross domestic product, in the 12 months through March, compared with a government forecast of $42 billion for the year.

Stocks Surge

Istanbul’s ISE-100 stock index jumped by 4.5 times since AKP came to power in November 2002, outpacing an increase of 3.8 times for the benchmark MSCI Emerging Markets Index. Turkey’s benchmark is down 3.5 percent this year.

Still, Erdogan can point to a record of economic growth and improving public finances. Standard & Poor’s increased its credit rating four times since he came to power.

That’s a contrast with the European Union countries, including Turkey’s neighbor Greece, that have been forced to take International Monetary Fund loans in the past three years as their economies unraveled amid a debt crisis.

In the Middle East, where popular revolts have swept away longtime leaders this year, Erdogan’s political success and Turkey’s economic progress have been cited as a model by opposition parties including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Recalling earlier elections, Hatem Ete of the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research says the key difference this time is that parties are offering long-term projects.

“All the general elections in Turkey’s recent past were held to overcome a crisis,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in the capital. “This time, it’s about how to build the country’s future.”

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