On Erdogan Campaign Trail, Invoking God, Reciting Poetry, Bashing Foes
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rock star appeal at his election rallies, promising to lead Turkey to claim its rightful place as a global power if he is re-elected in a runoff on Sunday.
ISTANBUL — His campaign addresses begin softly, drawing the audience in. A devout Muslim, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan frequently says he seeks to please not just the Turkish people, but also God. Playing to the crowds, he sings folk songs, recites lines from local poets or drapes the sash of the local soccer team over his shoulders.
He sometimes wades into the throngs of supporters for photos or greets children, who kiss his hands. Then he takes the podium to speak, dressed in a suit or a plaid sports coat.
To the cheers and whistles of hundreds of transportation workers at a campaign rally last week, he laid out why they should keep him in power in a runoff on Sunday. He boasted that he had improved the country’s roads and bridges, raised wages and offered tax breaks to small businesses.
He also vowed to keep fighting forces that he deemed enemies of the nation, including gay rights activists, to make Turkey “stronger in the world.” And he bashed the leaders of the opposition who are seeking to unseat him, accusing them of having entered “dark rooms to sit and bargain” with terrorists because they won the support of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party.
“We take refuge only in our God and we take our orders from our nation,” the president said. The crowd roared and men leaped to their feet, chanting, “Turkey is proud of you!”
Mr. Erdogan, 69, came out ahead 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 final vote.
In multiple appearances a day and in speeches that sometimes last 40 minutes, he has stuck to themes that have served him well during his two decades as Turkey’s leading politician. He bills himself on the campaign trail as the leader needed to shepherd a rising nation struggling to beat back multiple threats so it can claim its rightful place as a global power.
In the first round of voting, Mr. Erdogan failed to win the majority he needed for an outright victory. But with 49.5 percent of the vote, he did beat his main challenger, the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who got 44.9 percent.
Many analysts predict Mr. Erdogan will win on Sunday given his strong showing in the first round and his subsequent endorsement by the third-place candidate, Sinan Ogan, who received 5.2 percent of the vote and was eliminated from the race.
In grand terms, the president casts Turkey as being in a great struggle to rise in spite of forces conspiring to keep it down, and he invites voters to join him in this heroic national cause.
He vows to fight “imperialists,” a code word for the West that recalls the fight for independence from European powers that led to Turkey’s founding 100 years ago. He warns of “traps” and “plots” against the nation, like the attempted coup against him in 2016. He speaks out against “economic hit men” and “loan sharks in London,” hinting at foreign hands behind Turkey’s economic struggles. And he blasts terrorist organizations, pointing to decades of bloody battles between the government and militants from Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
To tout his government’s accomplishments, he lauds the infrastructure, calling out airports, tunnels and bridges by name and reminding voters how new highways have cut drive times between cities. Other oft-cited points of pride are the drones, warships and satellites produced by Turkey’s growing defense industry.
Mr. Erdogan spends little time on the country’s economic woes, 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 has he hinted 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 particularly relishes belittling his challenger, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, who pitched himself to voters as less imperious and more in touch with the concerns of common people. Mr. Kilicdaroglu promised to strengthen Turkish democracy following years of a slide toward autocracy, and to repair relations with the West.
In nearly every speech, Mr. Erdogan dismisses his rival as incompetent and as a servant of Western powers. But his most potent line of attack has been to link the opposition, in voters’ minds, with 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 often accused the country’s main pro-Kurdish party of collaborating with the militants, and many party members and leaders have been jailed or removed from elected posts in parliament or city councils.
In the run-up to the election, the pro-Kurdish party endorsed Mr. Kilicdaroglu, and Mr. Erdogan pounced, leveling terrorism accusations and even showing videos at campaign rallies that falsely showed militant leaders singing along to an opposition campaign song.
“Can any benefit come to my nation from those who are going around hand in hand with terrorists?” Mr. Erdogan said at one rally in Hatay Province, one of the areas hardest hit by the February earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people in southern Turkey.
For his staunchest supporters, who tend to be working class, rural, religious or from smaller cities away from the coasts, Mr. Erdogan has rock star appeal.
His campaign anthems blare as his supporters crowd into stadiums to await his appearance. The orange and blue flags of his governing Justice and Development Party are often strung up overhead.
During appearances in the quake-hit region, campaign organizers flooded audiences with Turkish flags, turning otherwise drab expanses of temporary shelters into seas of red and white.
Mr. Erdogan acknowledged some criticisms that his government was initially slow to respond. Calling the quakes 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 in the next year.
“With your support and your prayers, we will bring you to your new homes,” he told supporters in Hatay.
In recent appearances, Mr. Erdogan has put his connection with 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 vote in the first round.
Even opposition supporters acknowledge Mr. Erdogan’s strong bond with his constituents.
“He has been in power for a very long time and he is very good at delivering a message,” said Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a Turkish political consultant who has advised members of the opposition. “Over the years, he has built trust with his voters, and they believe whatever he says.”
Ben Hubbard is the Istanbul bureau chief. He has spent more than a dozen years in the Arab world, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. He is the author of “MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman.” @NYTBen