ANKARA, Turkey – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won Turkey’s first direct presidential election Sunday, striking a conciliatory tone toward critics who fear he is bent on a power grab as he embarks on another five years at the country’s helm.
“I will not be the president of only those who voted for me, I will be the president of 77 million,” Erdogan said in a victory speech delivered from the balcony of the Ankara headquarters of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
“Today the national will won once again, today democracy won once again,” he told thousands of flag-waving, cheering supporters. “Those who didn’t vote for me won as much as those who did, those who don’t like me won as much as those who do.”
The three-term prime minister’s message of unity was in stark contrast to his mostly bitter, divisive election campaign, when he poured scorn on his opponents, cast doubt on their Turkish identity and even accused his main challenger of being part of a shadowy coup conspiracy he said was run by a former associate living in the United States.
“I want to build a new future, as of today, with an understanding of a societal reconciliation, by regarding our differences as richness, and by pointing out not our differences but our common values,” he said.
Erdogan, 60, has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade. Revered by many as a man of the people who ushered in a period of economic prosperity, he is reviled by others as an increasingly autocratic leader trying to impose his religious and conservative views on a country with strong secular traditions.
His critics have accused him of running a heavily lopsided, unfair campaign, using the assets available to him through his office as prime minister to dominate media exposure and travel across the country. His office has rejected these claims.
“Erdogan did not win a victory today, he moved to (the presidential palace of) Cankaya through chicanery, cheating, deception and trickery,” said Devlet Bahceli, head of the Nationalist Action Party which backed Erdogan’s main rival, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.
“This person is too questionable and dubious to be seen as president,” he said.
With 99 percent of ballot boxes counted, Erdogan had 51.9 percent of the vote, according to figures from the state-run Anadolu news agency, which had reporters at ballot counting stations across the country. Ihsanoglu had 38.3 percent and the third candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, had 9.7 percent.
Ihsanoglu, the 70-year-old former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and a political newcomer, conceded defeat in a brief speech in Istanbul.
“I hope that the result is beneficial for democracy in Turkey,” he said. “I congratulate the prime minister and wish him success.”
Official results were expected today.