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Turks vote in 1st direct presidential election

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Istanbul, Aug 10 (AP) - Turks were voting in their first direct presidential election Sunday, a watershed event in the 91-year history of a country where the president was previously elected by Parliament.

Prime Minister RecepTayyip Erdogan, who has dominated the country's politics for the past decade, is the strong front-runner to replace the incumbent, Abdullah Gul, for a five-year term.

Fervently supported by many as a man of the people who has ensured a period of economic prosperity, Erdogan is seen by others as an increasingly autocratic leader bent on concentrating power in his own hands and trying to impose his religious and conservative views on a Turkey founded on strong secular traditions.

Erdogan is running against two other candidates. His main challenger is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a 70-year-old academic and former chief of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation who is backed by several opposition parties, including the two main ones: the republicans and the nationalists.

The third candidate is 41-year-old Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, who is considered a rising star on the minority Kurdish political scene.

A candidate needs an absolute majority for victory on Sunday. If none wins enough ballots, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held on Aug. 24.

Some 53 million people are eligible to cast votes in more than 160,000 polling stations across the country. Polls close at 1400 GMT, and only unofficial results are expected to be released on Sunday night.

After leading a bitter and divisive pre-election campaign, Erdogan sounded a more conciliatory and unifying note in his final campaign speech Saturday night.

"This country of 77 million is our country, there is no discrimination," he said. "We own this country all together."