(CNN) — Voting is underway in Turkey’s hotly contested presidential and parliamentary elections that will end President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule.
This Sunday’s elections are the Turkish leader’s biggest challenge to date. Erdogan faces economic problems and criticism, compounded by lax building regulations and chaotic recovery efforts after the devastating earthquake on February 6.
His main opponent is Kemal Kilidaroslu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represents an electoral coalition of six opposition parties. For the first time, the Turkish opposition is united around a single candidate.
To be elected, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote this Sunday night. Otherwise, Turkey will advance to the second round on May 28.
Speaking to CNN from a polling station in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, voter Korhan Futasi, 46, said, “My vote is for freedom. My vote is for the future of our children. I have hope.”
Yelis Sahin, 46, whose brother and son died in the quake, said: “This is the historic moment we’ve been waiting for for 20 years. This whole system has to change.”
For his part, first-time voter Eren Uzmele, 19, said: “The future of the country is in our hands, it’s in the hands of the youth.”
Kılıçdaroğlu, a 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has vowed to fix Turkey’s faltering economy and restore democratic institutions compromised by Erdogan’s slide into authoritarianism.
Major candidates voted
After casting his vote in Istanbul, Erdogan told reporters: “We pray to God for a better future for our country, our nation and Turkish democracy. It is very important that all our voters do not worry and vote until 5pm. The strength of Turkey’s democracy”.
Meanwhile, after voting in Ankara, Kılıcdaroglu said: “We all miss democracy, being together and hugging each other a lot. Let’s hope that they will see spring in this country from now on and it will continue forever.”
Erdogan concluded his election campaign this Saturday night with prayers at the Hagia Sophia, a mosque and an important historical site in Istanbul. Instead, Kıldıröğlu visited the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and an optimistic layman.
Erdogan extols the virtues of his long rule, including stability, an independent foreign policy and the continued development of Turkey’s defense sector. Recently, he raised civil servant salaries by 45% and lowered the retirement age.
Over the past two years, the Turkish currency has fallen, prices have risen and fueled a cost-of-living crisis that has eroded Erdogan’s conservative and working-class support base.
When a violent earthquake devastated large parts of southeastern Turkey on February 6, Erdogan faced political setbacks. Critics have criticized him for mismanaging recovery efforts and lax construction regulations led by his ruling Justice and Development (AK) party for two decades.
In the weeks after the earthquake, the government detained dozens of contractors, building inspectors and project managers for violating building codes. Critics dismissed the move as sacrificial.
The government apologized for “mistakes” made immediately after the disaster.
The earthquake killed more than 51,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. Thousands of people are unaccounted for, and there are unmarked graves in southeastern Turkey.
On Thursday, Kılıçdaroğlu was strengthened by the late withdrawal of a minor candidate, Muharrem Ince. Ince was low in the polls, but some opposition figures feared he would split the anti-Erdogan vote.
Turkey holds elections every five years. More than 1.8 million voters living abroad have already cast their ballots on April 17, Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reported Wednesday, citing the country’s deputy foreign minister. More than 65 million Turks can vote.
The Supreme Electoral Council (YSK), Ahmet Yener, announced last month that at least one million voters in earthquake-affected areas are expected not to vote this year due to displacement.