ISTANBUL (AFP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was set to lead Saturday prayers at Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia mosque, ahead of a battle for his political life against a powerful secular rival.
The 69-year-old will be emulating a ritual that Ottoman Sultans performed before they led their men off to war as he braces for Sunday’s parliamentary and presidential ballot.
Erdogan has never faced a more energized or united opposition than the one led by retired civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his disparate alliance of six parties.
The Turkish leader excelled at splitting his rivals and forging unlikely unions while winning one national election after another over 21 years — serving as prime minister from 2003-2014, and as president ever since.
But his Islamic-rooted party is reeling from anger over Turkey’s economic meltdown and a crackdown on civil liberties during Erdogan’s second decade of rule.
The six opposition parties have put aside their political and cultural differences and joined forces for the lone task of pushing Erdogan out.
They are officially supported by Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party — a group that accounts for at least 10 percent of the vote.
‘A very silly question’
The math is not adding up in Erdogan’s favor and most polls show him trailing his secular rival by a few points.
Kilicdaroglu is now desperately trying to break the 50-percent 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 am ready too,” Kilicdaroglu told a rally in Ankara.
Erdogan was put in the uncomfortable position on Friday night television of being asked what he would do if he lost.
The veteran leader bristled and pledged to respect the vote.
“This is a very silly question,” he said.
“We came to power in Turkey by democratic means, with the approval of our people. If our people were to change their mind, we would do what democracy requires.”
His campaign path to re-election will take him to the scene Saturday of one of the more controversial decisions of his recent rule.
‘The West got mad’
The Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral — once the world’s largest — before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.
It was converted into a museum when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a secular post-Ottoman Turkey in 1923.
Erdogan’s decision to convert it back into a mosque in 2020 solidified his hero status among his religious supporters and contributed to growing Western unease with his rule.
“The entire West got mad — but I did it,” Erdogan told an Istanbul rally on Saturday.
Erdogan has played up religious themes and used culture wars to try and energize his conservative and nationalist base.
He brands the opposition as a “pro-LGBT” lobby that takes orders from outlawed Kurdish militants and is bankrolled by the West.
The strident message appears to be aimed at taking voters’ minds off Turkey’s most dire economic crisis of his entire rule.
The official annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year. Economists think the real figure could have been much higher and blame the crisis on Erdogan’s unconventional financial theories.
Kilicdaroglu pledges to do away with them immediately after taking office.
‘We’re not happy’
But the starkness of the choice confronting Turkey’s 64 million voters is accompanied by soaring tensions and lingering fears over what Erdogan would do if he lost a narrow vote.
Kilicdaroglu wore a bulletproof vest to his two rallies on Friday after receiving what his party described as a credible threat on his life.
He gave an uncharacteristically short evening speech in Ankara that was originally played up by his campaign.
Kilicdaroglu’s running mate Ekrem Imamoglu — a popular figure who beat Erdogan’s ally in controversial 2019 Istanbul mayoral polls — was pelted with rocks days earlier while touring Turkey’s conservative heartland.
Turkish officials launched a formal investigation and made some arrests.
But several senior officials in Erdogan’s ruling party accused the Istanbul mayor of provoking the incident.
The voting will include southeastern regions that lie in ruins in the wake of a February quake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.
The level of anger in these traditionally pro-Erdogan regions could also help swing Sunday’s outcome.
“We’re not happy to be voting in the middle of rubble, but we want the government to change,” said Diber Simsek, a resident of the city of Antakya that sustained major damage in the disaster.