Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his conservative supporters Friday that they could face reprisals should his secular rival rise to power in momentous weekend polls.
Erdogan has been trying to rally his base ahead of elections Sunday that put his Islamic style of rule in the largest Muslim-majority member of NATO on the line.
Opinion surveys show challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu with a slight advantage and within a whisker of breaking the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff on May 28.
The opposition was helped by the withdrawal of a third-party candidate Thursday who was hurting Kilicdaroglu’s efforts to hand the Turkish leader his first national electoral defeat.
Erdogan was uncharacteristically coy about making predictions about the outcome of Turkey’s most consequential election of modern times.
“The ballot box will tell us Sunday,” he said in response to a direct question from a TV presenter about whether he would win.
The 69-year-old tried to raise the stakes for his faithful during a rally in a conservative Istanbul district that forms one of the hotbeds of his support.
He warned that Kilicdaroglu’s opposition alliance was driven by “vengeance and greed.”
“Do not forget,” he told the flag-waving crowd. “You may pay a heavy price if we lose.”
He later added that Western governments were using the opposition to impose their will on how Turkish society worked.
“Hey, the West, it’s my nation that decides!” he cried.
The message appeared to resonate with religious voters such as Sennur Henek.
“Erdogan is our chief and we are his soldiers,” the veiled 48-year-old said.
But Erdogan’s other daily speeches hint at a growing realization that he might not be able to pull out one of his trademark come-from-behind wins.
The Turkish leader has been slowly losing support from key segments of the population that rallied around him during a more prosperous decade following his rise in 2003.
Some polls show young people who have known no other leader supporting Erdogan’s rival by a 2-to-1 margin.
Kurds who once put trust in his efforts to end their cultural persecution are now also overwhelmingly backing Kilicdaroglu’s campaign.
And an economic crisis — Turkey’s worst in a quarter-century and one most blame on Erdogan’s unorthodox financial beliefs — has pushed other groups to lose faith in his government.
This has left the president with few options but to try to rally his most hardcore nationalist and religious supporters to show up and vote in large numbers.
The “incendiary rhetoric is designed to rally Erdogan’s base to get out and vote, but also to cast doubt on official results should things not go the president’s way,” analyst Hamish Kinnear of the Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy said.
Fight for democracy
Some veteran Turkey watchers view the vote as an existential battle for Turkey’s democratic future after years of crackdowns on dissent.
“Either Erdogan will lose, giving Turkey a chance of restoring full democracy, or he will win and likely remain in power for the rest of his life,” Washington Institute senior fellow Soner Cagaptay said.
Kilicdaroglu appears to sense the undercurrents of discontent running through Turkish society.
The former civil servant has tried to run an inclusive campaign that ignores Erdogan’s personal attacks and focuses on pledges to restore economic order and civil liberties.
“You will be able to criticize me very easily,” he told young people during the campaign.
He has surrounded himself with economists trusted by Western investors and some former Erdogan allies who could help peel away the president’s nationalist vote.
The 74-year-old also accused unnamed Russian actors of trying to meddle on Erdogan’s behalf in the election — a charge “strongly” denied by the Kremlin on Friday.
Kilicdaroglu said his immediate goal after the election would be to launch a process aimed at stripping the presidency of many of the powers Erdogan amassed after a failed 2016 coup.
The bloody putsch attempt was a watershed moment in Turkey’s history.
Erdogan responded with a purge that jailed thousands of soldiers for life and stripped tens of thousands of Turks of their government jobs.
Kilicdaroglu wants to return the power that Erdogan won through a contested constitutional referendum the following year back to parliament.
That would require the opposition to win Sunday’s parallel legislative election.
Polls show Erdogan’s right-wing alliance edging out the opposition bloc in the parliamentary ballot.
But the opposition would win a majority if it secured support from a new leftist alliance that represents the Kurdish vote.