ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Erdogan returns after three-day bout of gastro disturbs key election campaign

69-year-old Turkish president appears healthy at aviation festival, stresses government’s achievements as he faces toughest challenge yet

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) holds up the hands of Turkish air force pilot Alper Gezeravci (left) and aviation systems engineer Tuva Cihangir Atasever at Teknofest military fair, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 29, 2023. (Turkish Presidency via AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) holds up the hands of Turkish air force pilot Alper Gezeravci (left) and aviation systems engineer Tuva Cihangir Atasever at Teknofest military fair, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 29, 2023. (Turkish Presidency via AP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AFP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday appeared in public for the first time in three days after a stomach infection kept him off the campaign trail before key polls.

Smiling and dressed in a red windbreaker, the 69-year-old leader walked out on the stage of an Istanbul aviation festival and tossed out flowers to flag-waving supporters.

He arrived together with his close ally, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Libyan prime minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah.

Both countries have fought wars using Turkey’s combat drones, which will feature prominently at the weekend aviation event.

Erdogan had been lying low since getting sick live on television on Tuesday night.

Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has said Erdogan is suffering from gastroenteritis. The digestive problem is easily treated and usually clears up in a few days.

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Hatay on March 6, 2023, one month after a massive earthquake struck southeastern Turkey. (OZAN KOSE/AFP)

But it has disrupted Erdogan’s attempts to seize momentum in the run-up to Turkey’s most important election in generations on May 14.

Erdogan looked healthy addressing the crowd with a microphone in his hand, describing government efforts to help the victims of a massive February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.

But he refrained from addressing his absence or the health scare, instead proclaiming the launch of a new “century of Turkey.”

‘Hatred and grudges’

Erdogan’s illness came at one of the more vulnerable moments of his two-decade rule.

Most polls show Erdogan slightly behind his secular rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Turkey’s most pivotal election of modern times.

His Islamic-rooted party’s control of parliament through an alliance with an ultra-nationalist group is also under threat.

Erdogan has a penchant for campaigning and most analysts thought he could reverse the dip in polls on the campaign trail.

He appeared in five cities over two days before getting sick on late-night TV.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin speaking over video link, for the opening of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant held in Mersin, Turkey, April 27, 2023. (Adem ALTAN/AFP)

Erdogan tried to compensate by appearing at events via video link, launching a nuclear power plant with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday, and inaugurating a bridge the next day.

But the events lacked the electric atmosphere that Erdogan often generates when he speaks to adoring crowds at events aired live across the nation of 85 million people.

The rock concert atmosphere of his past campaigns has also been muted by mourning over the death and destruction wrought by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake across swathes of Turkey’s southeast.

Erdogan has decided against playing music at his appearances out of respect for the victims.

Broad opposition

He has instead focused on listing his achievements, including the construction of millions of new houses, and his push to resurrect Turkey’s military might.

The drones have played a central role in Turkey’s projection of power, most recently helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s advance on Kyiv at the start of the Kremlin’s invasion last year.

But Erdogan is facing the toughest challenge of his rule.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu (center), chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Turkish presidential candidate gestures a heart from inside a campaign bus during his visit to Adiyaman, Turkey, on April 21, 2023. (BULENT KILIC/AFP)

Kilicdaroglu has formed the type of broad-based coalition that Erdogan had mastered in crafting over 20 years.

The opposition alliance includes some of Erdogan’s former allies, liberals, Islamists and nationalists, as well as Kurds.

Erdogan returned to his preferred theme on Saturday of portraying opposition members as Western “agents” bent on undermining Turkey.

“With the scandalous statements they have made in recent days, they are revealing their hatred and grudges,” Erdogan said of his opponents.

“But no matter what they try to do, nothing will come of it.”

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