Turkish incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his closest rival Muharrem Ince have traded blows in mass rallies just a day before the country’s most fiercely contested presidential and parliamentary elections in decades.
Around 60 million registered Turkish voters are eligible to hit the polls in landmark snap elections on Sunday, with veteran and rhetorically-gifted Erdogan seeking a first-round victory for a new mandate and a strong parliamentary majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
The 64-year-old Turkish leader, however, has faced the unexpected emergence of energetic Ince, a formal physics teacher and the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as his main challenger in a tight presidential contest, whose winner will acquire sweeping new executive powers under a constitutional overhaul backed by Erdogan and endorsed narrowly in a controversial referendum last year.
“God willing, Turkey will start flying with this system... With this system, we will achieve what others cannot imagine,” Erdogan said on Saturday, addressing tens of thousands of his supporters at a rally in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district, the first of five planned for the day.
For his part, Ince, who is famous to have made fierce speeches in parliament against the AK Party, painted a gloomy picture in case that Erdogan emerged victorious in Sunday’s elections, saying Turkey’s currency would remain weak, prices high and the issue of some 3.5 million Syrian refugees unsolved.
“But if Ince wins, it will not just be Ince who wins... 80 million people will win! Turkey will win!” he said, addressing hundreds of thousands of his supporters who had crammed at the vast Maltepe shoreside on the Asian side of Istanbul for his final rally.
Ince boasts of holding 107 rallies in the last 51 days since his candidacy was announced, two mega meetings of them were held in Izmir and Ankara over the last two days.
“Tomorrow, we will have a completely different Turkey. Tomorrow, discrimination will come to an end,” 54-year-old Ince further said at the rally, vowing a series of transformative measures from speeding up talks to join the European Union (EU) to putting an end to a hugely unpopular football fan ID card system.
He also lambasted Erdogan for the bias he allegedly supported in Turkey’s state media, which has given the president and the AK Party extensive coverage while often ignoring the opposition rallies.
Ince claimed that some “five million” of his supporters were in Maltepe as he was speaking “but none of the TV channels can show” them. “Let this immorality be an example to the world.”
As Ince was speaking movingly at his rally, his strong opponent was also doing the same at the other side of Istanbul.
“God willing, tomorrow evening we will be able to experience this happiness together,” said Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for the past 15 years, at a well-attended rally. “Are you ready to bring victory?”
He also tried to ridicule Ince, who has never held state office despite being a legislator for 16 years, for his lack of experience.
“It's one thing to be a physics teacher, it's another thing to run a country,” said Erdogan, adding, “Being president needs experience. A president needs recognition from the international community.”
On Wednesday night, the Turkish leader surprised many by saying that he might seek to form a coalition government if his party failed to secure a majority in the parliamentary elections, as has long been an ardent critic of coalition governments.
Erdogan believes that coalition governments, formed through parliamentary systems, are all against stability in any given country, unlike a presidential system, which boosts stability.
Back in April, Erdogan said that the elections would be brought forward to June 24, more than a year earlier than planned, arguing that his administration was facing numerous legal problems, including economic challenges and the war in Syria that could be solved only with a more powerful presidency.
So far, opinion polls on average have placed the incumbent president around 20 percentage points ahead of Ince.
Under the constitutional changes going into effect after the decisive vote, the number of legislators in parliament will increase to 600 from 550 currently.
Meanwhile, rights campaigners and international organizations have expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the elections, which would come under a renewed state of emergency in Turkey. The measure has been in place since a failed coup two years ago, allowing the government to jail or dismiss more than 200,000 people over suspected links to coup plotters.
Earlier this month, Erdogan promised that the first thing he would do after being re-elected in the elections would be to suspend the emergency law.
The emergency law has helped Erdogan and his security apparatus in cracking down on those deemed to have played a role in the coup attempt.