Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was leading rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Sunday’s pivotal run-off election, according to early returns published by state media, placing him on course to extend his rule into a third decade.

Erdoğan had secured about 53 per cent of the vote, compared with 48 per cent for Kılıçdaroğlu, according to calculations by the state Anadolu News agency, which said that more than 90 per cent of ballot boxes had been opened. The independent news agency Anka gave Erdoğan a slimmer lead at 51 per cent.

Sunday’s second-round vote was billed by both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu as a referendum on Turkey’s future, exactly a century after the republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The opposition has warned that five more years of Erdoğan would send Turkey irreversibly down a path where democracy and human rights were steadily eroded, while the veteran president accused his opponents of aligning with terrorists and the west at Turkey’s expense. 

Erdoğan emphasised family values, the battle against terrorism and Turkey’s increasing role on the world stage in a series of fiery campaign rallies that helped to galvanise support among conservative, pious voters. Backing from Erdoğan’s base in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland helped the president defy expectations in the first round of elections on May 14, in which he beat Kılıçdaroğlu by a larger-than-expected margin. 

The 69-year-old president’s parliamentary bloc, a coalition that includes his Justice and Development party and the Nationalist Movement party also exceeded expectations in the first round, holding on to its majority in the legislative branch.

Kılıçdaroğlu had vowed to revive the economy by reversing many of Erdoğan’s policies, while also bringing the country back to a parliamentary democracy from the executive presidency system that was put in place after a referendum in 2017.

After an unexpectedly weak performance in the first-round election on May 14, the 74-year-old switched from a campaign promising “spring will come”, to harsher nationalist rhetoric. 

But Kılıçdaroğlu was dealt a blow when Sinan Oğan, the nationalist powerbroker who finished third in the first round of elections, recently threw his support behind Erdoğan, calling on his voters to back the incumbent.

International election observers said the first round of elections were broadly free, but they also noted that the campaigns had been far from fair. Erdoğan leaned heavily on state resources, providing giveaways such as free gas and 10GB of internet for students. He also boosted pay for public sector workers and increased the minimum wage.

The country’s government-affiliated media has provided wall-to-wall coverage of a string of Erdoğan events, including the opening of a Black Sea gas processing facility and the inauguration of a warship.

If Erdoğan does manage to secure victory, giving him another five-year term as president, the focus is expected to shift rapidly to the country’s $900bn economy.

The lira this week hit a record low, breaching 20 against the US dollar, as investors fretted over Erdoğan’s unconventional economic policies, which have included sharp rate cuts despite acute inflation.

A fall in Turkey’s foreign currency reserves, which has accelerated in recent weeks, has amplified the sense of concern among both international and local analysts.

Erdoğan said this week that the country’s economy, financial system and banks remained “sound”, adding that unidentified Gulf states had provided funding to relieve the pressures.