Thousands attend rallies for Erdogan and rival Kilicdaroglu before elections

Turnouts show huge interest in election, which has become referendum on President's rule

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an election campaign rally in Ankara on April 30. AFP
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu held massive rival rallies on Sunday, setting the stage for a bruising battle in the final two weeks of Turkey's election campaign.

Mr Erdogan showed no signs of an illness that sidelined him for three days last week as flag-waving supporters filled a central Ankara square that can fit a few hundred thousand people.

"Are we ready to come out with a crushing victory?" Mr Erdogan, 69, draped in a scarf of the Turkish capital's main football club, demanded from the enthusiastic crowd.

"On May 14, our nation, God willing, will eliminate them from the political scene," he said of secular leader Mr Kilicdaroglu and his six-party opposition alliance.

Mr Erdogan has bounced back strongly from what was described as a digestive problem in the run-up to one of Turkey's most important elections of its post-Ottoman history.

The illness shook the strongman image he has cultivated over two decades of economic booms and busts, social transformation and crackdowns on dissent.

"As you know I was sick recently, and from every house people were praying for me," Mr Erdogan told the crowd.

"I am trying to be worthy of those prayers."

Election rallies in Turkey ahead of May 14 elections - in pictures

Mr Kilicdaroglu, 74, and his multi-faceted alliance are posing Mr Erdogan's toughest election challenge since his Islamic-rooted party first swept to power in 2002.

Mr Erdogan became prime minister a year later, consolidating control as a powerful president under a new constitution in 2018.

The coming vote is too close to call and will probably lead to a run-off on May 28.

Mr Kilicdaroglu and his allies have fanned out across the country, holding daily events that are starting to get coverage on pro-government media.

He staged an equally massive rally along the embankment of the opposition-controlled Aegean city of Izmir, where Mr Erdogan drew slightly smaller crowds on Saturday.

"These elections are elections to rebuild our democracy," Mr Kilicdaroglu, a former civil servant, told the cheering crowd after walking on to the stage with his wife, Selvi.

"We will bring peace to this country, I will bring brotherhood to this country."

The massive turnout is a sign of the huge interest Turks have in the election, which has turned into a referendum on Mr Erdogan's rule.

His party is also in danger of losing control of Parliament, which it holds through an alliance with an ultra-nationalist group.

Mr Erdogan in 2019 lost landmark municipal votes in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir — Turkey's three biggest and most economically powerful cities.

But his decision to campaign in all three hints at the close nature of the vote.

"Ankara has a huge responsibility," Mr Erdogan told the crowd.

Updated: May 01, 2023, 6:49 AM