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Erdogan well ahead of Ihsanoglu for Turkey president

With over 90 percent of votes counted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan leads in Turkey's presidential elections. Some 53 million people were eligible to choose a successor to Abdullah Gul, who did not run for a second term.

Turkish media reported on Sunday that 60-year-old

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

held over 53 percent of the votes counted so far in his bid for an

initial five-year stint as president

, bringing him one step closer to the "

new Turkey

" he has promised and which his opponents fear.

Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu

, the 70-year-old joint candidate of the two largest opposition parties, has just over 37 percent of ballots. Selahattin Demirtas, a 41-year-old human rights lawyer who ran on a center-left platform for the Peoples' Democratic Party and earned the nickname "the Kurdish Obama," has garnered 9 percent so far.

Erdogan's two opponents had lagged far behind in pre-election surveys.

After casting his ballot earlier Sunday in Istanbul, Erdogan, who is barred by party rules from seeking a fourth term in his current post, told reporters that "the people are making an important decision ... for Turkish democracy, for the future of our country."

Initial reports indicated that voter turnout might be slightly lower than in previous elections. State-run media have since reported the turnout rate at 76 percent; 89 percent had voted in March's local elections.

'Only one name'

Ahead of the election, critics feared that a victory by Erdogan, of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), could lead to more authoritarianism and less freedom of expression. Erdogan had a

testy relationship with Turkish journalists

who did not toe the AKP line in the last days of the election.

The prime minister's opponents had accused him of undermining the secular legacy of the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established a strict separation between religion and politics when he forged the new state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Since becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan has faced little opposition in his efforts to remake Turkey to his liking.

"A ballot paper with only one name does not represent the democracy," the opposition candidate Ihsanoglu said on Sunday as he cast his ballot in Istanbul. "It does not suit Turkey." He called the campaign "unfair, disproportionate," but nonetheless predicted that the votes of the "silent masses" would help him to victory.

Midway through the count, that did not appear to be the case. Complete results are expected by Monday.

mkg/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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