On Erdogan’s campaign trail, invoking God, reciting poetry, attacking enemies

On Erdogan’s campaign trail, invoking God, reciting poetry, attacking enemies

ISTANBUL — His campaign speeches start off smoothly, drawing in the crowd. A devout Muslim, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often says that he seeks to please not just the Turkish people but also God. Playing for the crowd, he sings folk songs, recites verses by local poets or drapes the local football team’s sash over his shoulders.

He sometimes enters the crowd of fans to take pictures or shake hands with the children, who kiss his hands. Then he takes the podium to speak, dressed in a plaid suit or sport coat.

To the cheers and whistles of hundreds of transport workers at a campaign rally last week, he laid out why they should keep him in power in the second round on Sunday. He boasted that he had improved the nation’s roads and bridges, raised wages, and offered tax breaks for small businesses.

He also vowed to continue fighting forces he saw as the nation’s enemies, including gay rights activists, to make Turkey “the strongest in the world”. And he has lashed out at opposition leaders who are trying to topple him, accusing them of having entered “dark rooms to sit and negotiate” with terrorists because they won the support of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party.

“We only take refuge in our God and take orders from our nation,” said the president. The crowd roared and the men jumped, chanting, “Turkey is proud of you!”

Erdogan, 69, came out on top in the toughest political fight of his career on May 14 – the first round of the presidential election. Since then, he has kept a busy schedule in the run-up to the final vote.

In several appearances a day and in speeches sometimes lasting 40 minutes, he stuck to themes that served him well during his two decades as Turkey’s top politician. He presents himself in the campaign as the leader needed to shepherd a rising nation struggling to fend off multiple threats so it can claim its rightful place as a global power.

In the first round of voting, Erdogan failed to gain the majority needed for an outright victory. But with 49.5 percent of the vote, he beat his main challenger, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who won 44.9 percent.

Many analysts predict Erdogan will win on Sunday, given his strong showing in the first round and his subsequent support from third-place finisher Sinan Ogan, who received 5.2 percent of the vote and was eliminated from the race.

In grandiose terms, the president presents Turkey as in a great struggle to rise, despite the forces that conspire to keep it down, and invites voters to join him in this heroic national cause.

He promises to fight “imperialists”, a code word for the West that recalls the struggle for independence by European powers that led to the founding of Turkey 100 years ago. He warns of “traps” and “conspiracies” against the nation, such as the attempted coup against him in 2016. He speaks out against “economic hitmen” and “loan sharks in London”, hinting at foreign hands behind Turkey’s economic struggles. And he criticizes terrorist organizations, pointing to decades of bloody battles between the government and militants in Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

To praise his government’s accomplishments, he praises the infrastructure, calling out airports, tunnels and bridges by name and reminding voters how the new highways have cut travel times between cities. Other frequently cited reasons for pride are the drones, warships and satellites produced by Turkey’s burgeoning defense industry.

Erdogan spends little time on the country’s economic problems, including annual inflation that peaked above 80 percent last year and remained stubbornly high at 44 percent last month, greatly reducing the purchasing power of ordinary citizens. Nor did he hint that, in victory, he would revise policies that some economists say have left the economy vulnerable to a possible currency crisis or recession.

The president is particularly fond of disparaging his opponent, Kilicdaroglu, who has presented himself to voters as less imperious and more attentive to the concerns of ordinary people. Mr. Kilicdaroglu pledged to strengthen Turkish democracy after years of slide towards autocracy, and repair relations with the West.

In nearly every speech, Erdogan dismisses his rival as incompetent and a servant of Western powers. But his most powerful line of attack has been to link the opposition, in voters’ minds, to terrorism.

Turkey has fought for decades with Kurdish militants seeking autonomy from the state. Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider them terrorists. The Turkish government has also frequently accused the country’s main pro-Kurdish party of collaborating with the militants, and many party members and leaders have been arrested or removed from elected posts in parliament or municipal councils.

In the run-up to the election, the pro-Kurdish party endorsed Kilicdaroglu, and Erdogan lashed out, raising accusations of terrorism and even showing videos at campaign rallies that falsely showed militant leaders singing an opposition campaign song.

“Can any benefit come to my nation from those who go hand in hand with terrorists?” Erdogan told a rally in Hatay province, one of the areas hardest hit by the February earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in southern Turkey.

To his staunchest supporters, who tend to be working-class, rural, religious or from smaller towns far from the coast, Erdogan has rock star appeal.

His campaign anthems play as his fans fill stadiums to await his appearance. The orange and blue flags of its ruling Justice and Development Party are often hung overhead.

During appearances in the earthquake-hit region, campaign organizers deluged the public with Turkish flags, turning drab expanses of temporary shelter into seas of red and white.

Erdogan acknowledged some criticisms that his government was initially slow to respond to. Calling the earthquakes the “disaster of the century”, he spoke of a newly built hospital and his government’s plans to build hundreds of thousands of homes in the area next year.

“With your support and your prayers, we will take them to their new homes,” he told supporters in Hatay.

In recent appearances, Erdogan has cast his connection to voters in almost romantic terms.

“Don’t forget, we are together not until Sunday, but until the grave,” he told supporters in the central province of Sivas, where he won more than two-thirds of the votes in the first round.

Even opposition supporters recognize Erdogan’s strong bond with his constituents.

“He’s been in power for a long time and he’s very good at delivering a message,” said Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a Turkish political consultant who has advised opposition members. “Over the years, he has earned the trust of his constituents, and they believe everything he says.”


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