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Turks vote in first direct presidential election

ISTANBUL--Turks voted Sunday in their first direct presidential election, a watershed event in the country's 91-year history that could cement Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position as Turkey's all-powerful leader.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, is the strong front-runner to replace incumbent Abdullah Gul for a five-year term.

“The people are making an important decision ... for Turkish democracy, for the future of our country,” Erdogan said after casting his ballot on the Asian side of Istanbul, the country's largest city.

Now in his third term as prime minister at the head of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Erdogan has been a polarizing figure. He is fervently supported by many as a man of the people who has led Turkey through a period of economic prosperity. Yet critics view him as an increasingly autocratic leader bent on concentrating power and imposing his religious and conservative views on a country founded on strong secular traditions.

Some 53 million people are eligible to vote; an absolute majority is needed to win. Otherwise, the top two candidates go to a runoff on Aug. 24. Erdogan, whose party won local elections in March with about 43 percent of the vote, is widely expected to be elected, although it is unclear if he can avoid a runoff.

Party rules barred Erdogan from serving another term as prime minister. Turkish presidents used to be elected by parliament but Erdogan's government pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2007, changing the procedure to a popular vote.

Previously a largely ceremonial role, Erdogan has vowed to transform the presidency into a powerful position — something his detractors say proves he is bent on a power grab. He has said he will activate the post's rarely used dormant powers — a legacy of a 1980 coup — including the ability to call parliament and summon and preside over Cabinet meetings.

Erdogan's main challenger is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old academic and former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation who is backed by several opposition parties including the two main ones: a pro-secular party and a nationalist one.

Ihsanoglu, who has focused on a message of unity, said some voting irregularities had been reported Sunday. He said some voters had photographed their stamped ballots with their mobile phones, possibly to use those photos to receive favors from certain political parties.

An official complaint would be filed, Ihsanoglu said.

“The eyes of the whole world are upon us,” he said after voting in Istanbul. “(Turkey) has been striving to become a first-class democracy ... and hopefully Turkey will achieve this today.”

The third presidential candidate is Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, 41, a rising star on the minority Kurdish political scene.

Asa Lindestam, head of a group of election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said voting at the few polling stations she had monitored had proceeded “smoothly.”

The private Dogan news agency said a man was detained in southeastern Sanliurfa province after being allegedly caught stamping several ballots in favor of Erdogan, and a fight later broke out between ruling and opposition party officials at the police station.

The past year-and-a-half has been a turbulent one for Erdogan, who faced widespread anti-government protests in 2013

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is the front-runner in Turkey's presidential election, holds his ballot paper at a polling station in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, Aug. 10.

(AP)

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