Tayyip Erdogan leads prayer on eve of political life fight

ISTANBUL: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lead Saturday prayers at iconic Istanbul Hagia Sophia mosque, before a battle for his political life against a powerful secular rival.
The 69-year-old will mimic a ritual that Ottoman Sultans played before they lead their men to war as he prepares for Sunday’s parliamentary and presidential polls.
Erdogan has never faced a more forceful or united opposition than that led by retired civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his disparate six-party alliance.
The Turkish leader has excelled at dividing rivals and forging unlikely unions while winning one national election after another for 21 years.
But his Islamic-rooted party is reeling from anger over Turkey’s economic collapse and crackdown on civil liberties during Erdogan’s second decade of rule.
The six opposition parties put aside their political and cultural differences and joined forces for the sole task of ousting Erdogan.
They are officially backed by Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, a group that accounts for at least 10% of the vote.
The calculations are not in Erdogan’s favor and most polls show him trailing his secular rival by a few points.
Kilicdaroglu is now desperately trying to cross the 50% threshold and avoid a May 28 runoff that could give Erdogan a chance to regroup and reframe the debate.
“Are you ready to bring democracy to this country? To bring peace to this country? I promise I’m ready too,” Kilicdaroglu told a rally in Ankara.
Erdogan was put in an awkward position on Friday night television where he was asked what he would do if he lost.
The veteran leader bristled and pledged to respect the vote.
“That’s a very silly question,” he said.
“We came to power in Turkey through democratic means, with the approval of our people. If our people were to change their minds, we would do what democracy demands.”
His campaign journey to re-election will take him to the scene of one of the most controversial decisions of his recent reign on Saturday.
The Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral – once the largest in the world – before being turned into a mosque by the Ottomans.
It was turned into a museum when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established a secular post-Ottoman Turkey in 1923.
Erdogan’s decision to convert it back into a mosque in 2020 has cemented his hero status among his religious supporters and contributed to growing Western unease with his rule.
“The whole West got angry, but I did it,” Erdogan said at a rally in Istanbul on Saturday.
Erdogan has played on religious themes and used culture wars to try to energize his conservative and nationalist base.
He calls the opposition a “pro-LGBT” lobby that takes orders from outlaw Kurdish activists and is funded by the West.
The strident message appears to be aimed at distracting voters from Turkey’s deepest economic crisis of his entire reign.
The official annual inflation rate reached 85% last year. Economists believe the real figure could have been much higher and blame the crisis on Erdogan’s unconventional financial theories.
Kilicdaroglu undertakes to delete them immediately after taking office.
But the stark choice facing Turkey’s 64 million voters is accompanied by growing tensions and lingering fears about what Erdogan would do if he lost a close vote.
Kilicdaroglu wore a bulletproof vest during his two rallies on Friday after receiving what his party described as a credible threat to his life.
He gave an unusually short evening speech in Ankara which was originally played by his campaign.
Kilicdaroglu’s running mate Ekrem Imamoglu – a popular figure who beat Erdogan’s ally in the disputed 2019 Istanbul mayoral elections – was pelted with rocks days earlier while visiting the heart curator of Turkey.
The Turkish authorities have opened an official investigation and made some arrests.
But several senior officials from Erdogan’s ruling party have accused Istanbul’s mayor of instigating the incident.
The vote will include areas in the southeast which are in ruins following an earthquake in February that killed more than 50,000 people.
The level of anger in these traditionally pro-Erdogan regions could also help tip Sunday’s result.
“We are not happy to vote in the middle of the rubble, but we want the government to change,” said Diber Simsek, a resident of the city of Antakya who suffered extensive damage in the disaster.


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