Turkish opposition implores supporters to protect their votes from Erdogan's efforts to steal the election

Raf Sanchez
Muharrem Ince ,Mr Erdogan's main challenger, called on his supporters to protect the ballot boxes - AP

Turkey's opposition on Saturday called for an all out effort to protect the vote in today's elections, amid fears Recep Tayyip Erdogan's supporters will try to rig the result to keep the Turkish president in power. 

Millions of Turks will go to the polls on in the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections, deciding whether to allow Mr Erdogan to continue his 15 years as Turkey's leader and to preserve his party’s majority in parliament. 

Mr Erdogan has a wide lead in the polls but it is not clear if he will pass the 50 per cent threshold he needs to avoid a one-on-one runoff election against Muharrem Ince, the leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP)

Mr Ince, a 54-year-old former physics teacher, has run an unexpectedly spirited campaign and hopes that if he can get reach a runoff against Mr Erdogan then all other opposition parties will throw their support behind him.   

In his final campaign rally in Istanbul, Mr Ince warned that the president's Justice and Development Party (AKP) would try to steal the election and prevent a runoff. He called on his supporters to flock to voting stations to prevent election fraud.  

“I’m declaring 36 hours of mobilisation,” he told the crowd. “What time tomorrow will you be around the boxes? Not 6am, be there at 5.30am. And if you don't have a health problem, you are going there tonight.”

Mr Erdogan dismissed fears of voter fraud Credit:  REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

He also implored local officials not to go along with efforts to rig the result. “Don't disgrace Turkey anymore. You are the governors of the state, not Erdogan,” he said.

In his own final campaign rally, Mr Erdogan scoffed at warnings of voter fraud. “What is that? This country is based on law, he said. “Except for terror zones, we haven't held any elections with any flaws in 15 years."

Turkey has has a long history of fair elections dating back to the 1950s. But the 2017 referendum to change the constitution was marred by last minute changes to voting rules and allegations of ballot box stuffing by Mr Erdogan’s party. 

Among the changes was a decision by the electoral commission, made on the day of the referendum, to accept ballots which hadn’t been stamped by election officials. Election observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) concluded “late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard” on voting. 

The same rules will be in place for Sunday’s election, which critics say leave them open to fraud. Turkey’s state news agency, Anadolu, published a story accusing OSCE observers of trying to “sow chaos” by criticising Turkey’s elections. 

A vast crowd gathered for the opposition's final rally before Sunday's elections Credit: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

Hundreds of ballot box watchers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested in recent weeks, in what the party says is an attempt to weaken its ability to monitor for election fraud.

“They have arrested hundreds and are trying to scare the rest from coming to the polling stations,” said Garo Paylan, an HDP member of parliament. 

At Mr Ince’s rally, his supporters carried flags of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first leader of the CHP and the founder of the Turkish republic. CHP voters said they were sure Mr Erdogan would try to steal the election but at the same time were confident their candidate would prevail. 

“Of course he will try to cheat again,” said Gonca Pas, a 24-year-old textile worker. “But this time we won’t let it happen. This time we will defend our votes.”

Mr Erdogan has insisted that he would relinquish power if the people of Turkey said “tamam” - the Turkish word for "enough". But many analysts doubt he would actually accept an election defeat. 

“He fears that he will be prosecuted and persecuted if he loses the election. So I think it would be really hard for him to accept a loss and step down if there is a surprise result on Sunday,” said Soner Cagaptay, author of The New Sultan, a biography of Mr Erdogan.