Turkey’s two main presidential candidates made their final appearances in public during the last hours of campaigning on the eve of presidential and parliamentary elections that could significantly shape the NATO member’s future.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held his last election rallies in Istanbul on Saturday, before a so-called propaganda ban went into effect, accusing the opposition of working with US President Joe Biden to topple him while making a final appeal in the run-up to the biggest challenge to his 20-year rule.
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Polls show Erdogan trailing behind the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. If neither of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote to secure an outright win, there will be a run-off on May 28.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said that Erdogan spent the last two days of his campaign in Istanbul. “He met up with youth and visited various neighbourhoods, including the Beyoglu district where he was born, played football and started his political career,” she said.
On Saturday, he picked the Hagia Sophia mosque for evening prayers – and his final election message – Koseoglu said, adding, “This is a symbolic move by President Erdogan.”
First constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine Empire, then converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and later a museum in 1935 in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state, the iconic monument was reconverted into a mosque in 2020, under Erdogan.
Kilicdaroglu at Ataturk mausoleum
Kilicdaroglu did not hold a rally on Saturday, instead paying his respects at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in Ankara. He was accompanied by crowds of supporters, each carrying a single carnation to lay on the tomb.
On Friday, he asked tens of thousands gathered to hear his final speech to vote on Sunday to “change Turkey’s destiny”.
“We will show the whole world that our beautiful country is one that can bring democracy through democratic means,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from Ankara, said that Kilicdaroglu remained confident and determined: “He says it will be a historic moment for the people of Turkey.”
Ahelbarra said the visit to the mausoleum of Ataturk, also the founder of the Cumhuriyet Halk Party (Republican People’s Party, CHP), on the last day of campaigning was important because “Kilicdaroglu has kept saying during the campaign that he is fighting for the secular identity of Turkey.”
“He wants this election to be the end of an era and the beginning of a new one which, he says, is going to be more about political personal freedoms and vibrant democracy in the country,” said Ahelbarra.
Voters will also elect a new parliament, likely a tight race between the Cumhur İttifakı (People’s Alliance) comprising Erdogan’s conservative Adalet ve Kalkınma Party (Justice and Development Party, AK Party), the ultranationalist Milliyetçi Hareket (Nationalist Movement Party, MHP) and other far-right groups. Kilicdaroglu’s Millet İttifakı (Nation Alliance) includes six parties.
Erdogan’s campaign over the past month has focused on his government’s achievements in the defence industry and infrastructure projects, and his assertion that the opposition would roll back such developments.
One of his talking points has been that the opposition is receiving orders from the West, and that they will bow down to Western nations’ wishes if elected. At a rally in Istanbul, Erdogan also recalled comments made by Biden, and published by the New York Times in January 2020, when he was campaigning for the White House.
At that time, Biden said Washington should encourage Erdogan’s opponents to defeat him electorally, stressing he should not be overthrown in a coup.
“Biden gave the order to topple Erdogan, I know this. All my people know this,” said Erdogan. “If that is the case, then the ballots tomorrow will give a response to Biden, too,” he added.
While there has been concern about how Erdogan might react if he loses, the president said in a televised interview on Friday that he would accept the outcome of the election, no matter the result.
“If our nation decides to make such a different decision, we will do exactly what is required by democracy and there is nothing else to do,” he said.