Turkish elections: Recep Tayyip Erdogan set to become the country's first elected president

Despite scandals and media crackdowns, Mr Erdogan's supporters are in positive mood ahead of poll

ISTANBUL

In the heart of an opposition stronghold, campaigners for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presidential bid are undeterred by scandal upon scandal. They are convinced their man will sweep to victory in today's elections, the first of their kind in Turkey's history.

"We're very positive," says Birsan Er, a 40-year-old housewife enthusiastically campaigning and handing out flyers in a Besiktas Square beside the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

The controversial Prime Minister is widely predicted to win as polls show he leads the field with the more than 50 per cent of the vote needed to gain the presidency outright in the country's first directly elected presidential race. Across Istanbul, his face is plastered over buildings. His poster appears on most street corners as he has vastly outspent his rivals.

But for many, the move from powerful prime minister to president represents a dangerous shift towards authoritarianism. Supporters of Mr Erdogan say he is just the best man for the job, having overseen a sustained period of economic prosperity.

His critics, however, point to repeated scandals that in recent years have blighted his time as Prime Minister. After leaked conversations emerged, alleging widespread corruption at the pinnacle of Turkish politics, implicating Mr Erdogan, he attempted to ban Twitter and YouTube. The act, widely seen as an assault on free speech, was later overruled by Turkey's constitutional court.

"A powerful leader means a powerful country," says Ms Er, who dismisses the now infamous comments made by Mr Erdogan's deputy, Bulent Arinc, who said Turkish women should refrain from laughing in public. "That's not a problem. That was his personal opinion, and as you can see here, there are lots of women laughing, smiling and waving flags for our beloved Recep Tayyip Erdogan."

Today some 53 million voters will choose between Mr Erdogan and the nationalist party MHP and secular CHP coalition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and Kurdish nominee Selahattin Demirtas.

The Prime Minister, who has run a campaign promising an "active presidency", will have to resign his position at the head of the government to take the reins in Ankara.

Constitutionally, the president is the head of state, and has limited governing powers. But Mr Erdogan has promised to "get sweaty" and is determined to take a larger role should he be elected.

This fits into his plan to be in power until 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Turkish Republic, around which he has based a number of controversial goals – including the construction of a gigantic third airport, a third Bosphorus bridge and a canal running parallel to the strait.

Opposition pundits fear an Erdogan victory will turn Turkey towards an authoritarian government in the style of Vladimir Putin's Russia, should the ruling AKP party nominate a weaker prime minister to take Mr Erdogan's place in parliament.

In the wake of the corruption scandal, Mr Erdogan turned on his critics, especially followers of a Turkish Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen. Hundreds of police officers and judges have been sacked for alleged membership of Mr Gulen's movement.

Last year, in Istanbul's Gezi Park, arguably the largest wave of protests in recent Turkish history was sparked by a proposal – backed by Mr Erdogan – to demolish part of the park to for a shopping centre. The government's heavy-handed crackdown on protesters led to the protests quickly spreading all over Turkey,

During the election campaign, state media has been accused of favouring Mr Erdogan. Yesterday, the editor of a leading Turkish newspaper resigned after Mr Erdogan criticised the news coverage of the paper's owner, Dogan Media Group.

In a separate incident last week, Mr Erdogan lashed out at correspondent Amberin Zaman, calling her a "shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist". She was accused of insulting Islam and Muslims and told she should "know her place". Yesterday another prominent Turkish journalist, Mehmet Baransu, was detained, reportedly as part of a crackdown on dissenting journalism.

Increasing incidents like these are causing some voters to reconsider their support for Turkey's strongest leader since Ataturk.

"He doesn't represent everyone and is against the people he doesn't represent. I worry about him getting too powerful, but he is the most competent candidate for the country," said one 26-year-old hospitality manager from Besiktas.

In Besiktas, an Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu campaign bus blared out the candidate's election theme tune, a must-have for any presidential candidate. Besiktas is CHP territory, and the local office is sure the party will win at least 80 per cent of the vote in this district, despite being likely to lose today's election nationally.

"If Erdogan wins I see a very dark path to dictatorship, authoritarianism and tears," says Seckin Aybar, 23, the campaign's regional leader for Young CHP in Besiktas.

"The heavy crackdown we saw during the Gezi Park protests are just a preview of what will happen if he is elected."

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