ISTANBUL Turkish nationals living abroad began casting their ballots on Saturday at border customs offices, launching the voting cycle in the country's first direct presidential election.
Election officials set up 42 polling stations at land crossings, airports and sea harbors that will remain open for arriving Turks until Aug. 10, the date that voters living in Turkey will go to the polls for a first round of the election.
Most of those traveling to the border to vote are Turkish citizens living in nearby countries or passing through the country on their way to another destination. Until this year, Turks living abroad had to return home to cast their ballots.
After a recent change in the law, they will also be able to vote this year for the first time at embassies and consulates in their countries of residence between Aug. 7 and 10, which is expected to significantly lift expatriate voter turnout.
Some 53 million people are able to vote in the election, including 2.8 million citizens abroad. Until now, Turkish presidents were elected by parliament.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, in office since 2003, is running for the post that until now has been largely ceremonial. Opinion polls place him well ahead of his competitors.
He has said he will be a more assertive president if elected and his party has proposed changing the constitution to turn the office into an executive presidency with greater powers.
Parliament's two biggest opposition parties are backing Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former head of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, as their candidate for president.
Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish left-wing People's Democratic Party, is also running in the race.
If none of the candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held on Aug. 24.
(Reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Tom Heneghan)