ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Turks living abroad begin voting as ailing Erdogan is forced off campaign trail

Following two-day absence, Turkish leader appears via video link at inauguration of nuclear plant, as he seeks to project vigor after getting sick during live interview

Pedestrians walk past billboards showing the portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and a slogan reading "For Turkey's century; the right time, the right man," on a building in Ankara ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, on April 20, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)
Pedestrians walk past billboards showing the portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and a slogan reading "For Turkey's century; the right time, the right man," on a building in Ankara ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections, on April 20, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Some 3.4 million Turkish citizens living abroad began voting Thursday in national elections that will decide whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can continue governing Turkey after two decades in power.

The overseas balloting began amid concerns over Erdogan’s health after he was forced to cancel election rallies on Wednesday and Thursday. However, the 69-year-old leader attended a Thursday ceremony via video link to mark the inauguration of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, reemerging from a two-day absence.

Looking wan and sporting bags under his eyes, Erdogan was shown seated behind his desk at a virtual ceremony unveiling the Russian-built nuclear power plant. He appeared alongside his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Turkey’s health minister said Erdogan’s condition was improving.

“I was with him this morning. His health is fine,” Fahrettin Koca, a physician by training, said Thursday. “The effect of his gastrointestinal infection has decreased. He will continue his schedule.”

Erdogan has laid low since getting sick while conducting a live television interview on Tuesday evening.

He had been campaigning tirelessly to pull out one of his trademark come-from-behind wins in May 14 parliamentary and presidential polls.

But he looked wan during the interview and then cut it off in the middle of a question 10 minutes into the show.

The camera shook and the screen turned blank before going to a commercial break. A voice could be heard saying “Oh wow” in the background while someone repeatedly coughed.

Erdogan returned about 15 minutes later and apologized for getting sick.

He said he developed “stomach flu” while hopping between five cities for campaign rallies and public project launches on Monday and Tuesday.

The health scare has upturned Erdogan’s travel schedule and complicated his path to a third decade of rule.

The latest opinion polls in Turkey showed a slight lead for Erdogan’s main challenger, center-left opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is backed by the cross-party Nation Alliance.

Erdogan served as Turkey’s prime minister from March 2003 to August 2014 and has held the president’s office since then. He has been criticized for his increasingly authoritarian rule and handling of the economy and rampant inflation in recent years, as well as of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey in February.

Among overseas voters, the biggest contingents include 400,000 Turks in France and 1.5 million in Germany who can cast their ballots in Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections until May 9. Voting in Turkey itself doesn’t take place until May 14.

In Berlin, voter Fatma, who declined to provide her surname, said she backed the current president.

“Erdogan is strong. We are behind him,” she said.

Turkish citizens living in Germany arrive at a polling station at the Turkish consulate to cast their vote for the Turkish the parliament and president election in Berlin, Germany, April 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Her comments were echoed by 39-year-old Ozlem Dinc in Paris, who expressed full support for Erdogan. “We hope from the bottom of our hearts that he will come to power again and that he will conquer the whole world,” she said.

Others were critical of the long-time president and the changes he has made to Turkey’s political system.

“We have to change the president first and then the system,” said voter Sema Jude in Paris. “The presidential system in Turkey is not democratic and it is like a dictatorship.”

Cinar Negatir agreed, though for other reasons. “Yes for a change of president, because economy is at 0 percent,” he said. “That’s why we vote to change the president.”

Up to 300 people lined up outside the Turkish General Consulate in the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt waiting to vote. The atmosphere was calm with supporters of the president and of the opposition discussing their views in line.

If no candidate wins outright and a presidential run-off is needed on May 28, overseas balloting would take place May 20-24.

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