IZMIR, Turkey — With just 17 days to go until the elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s health has caused alarm on Wednesday after canceling his campaign travel two days in a row, including a previously planned trip for a high profile ceremony at Turkey’s new power plant in Mersin on Thursday.
The cancelation follows a health scare that the Turkish leader suffered during a live-TV interview on Tuesday night.
"Today, I will rest at home with the advice of my doctors," Erdogan wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials said that Erdogan would attend the ceremony via video links instead of in person, unlike planned initially.
The 69-year-old Erdogan, seeking to enter his third decade in power, seemed to suffer a bout of sickness during a April 25 joint broadcast on the pro-government Kanal 7 and Ulke TV stations.
Thousands of spectators who watched the interview saw Ulke TV's editor-in-chief Hasan Ozturk pause mid-question, rise from his chair in alarm and a voice off-camera exclaim "God help us" before an ad break. There were no cameras on the president as the moment unfolded, causing many Turks to speculate on social media about whether Erdogan had a heart attack or an epileptic crisis.
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After 20 minutes, a grim-faced Erdogan returned to the interview, playing down the health scare as a minor discomfort caused by hectic campaigning. "It is a serious stomach bug," he said, explaining that he had come to the late-night interview against his doctor's advice. He thanked everyone who expressed their well-wishes and ended the interview after another 10 minutes.
Erdogan's health has been an ongoing issue since 2006, when Erdogan, then prime minister, was rushed into a hospital unconscious, feeding rumors that he had epilepsy or diabetes or both. Following surgery on his lower intestines in 2011, some local journalists and foreign analysts claimed he had advanced colon cancer, even speculating that he had only two years to live. Again two years ago, rumors of the president's death flared up in social media when he disappeared for three days rather than attending a climate summit in Glasgow.
After the televised scare, one of the first to send well wishes to Erdogan was his political rival, soft-spoken Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who will challenge him in the first round of the presidential polls on May 14 and, according to most polls, in a decisive second round two weeks later. An Al-Monitor/Premise poll released Wednesday indicated Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are statistically tied in a runoff, though there is still a good number of undecided voters.
Despite a standoff earlier Tuesday, when Erdogan refused to shake Kilicdaroglu's hand during a ceremony marking the 61st anniversary of the Constitutional Court, the opposition candidate tweeted his well-wishes to Erdogan immediately after the incident, as did other members of the opposition alliance. "May Erdogan get well soon, and we continue the [electoral process] in peace and good health," tweeted Temel Karamollaoglu, the leader of the Welfare Party.
"Kilicdaroglu's well-wishes are valuable," said Bulent Turan, the deputy chair of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), on CNN-TURK Wednesday. "Politics, by definition, is laden with polemics. But humanity and courtesy are important."
On Wednesday morning, the president's office announced Erdogan's program of ceremonies in three cities, but the president tweeted at noon that he was "resting" for the day and that Vice President Fuat Oktay would attend them in his place.
Officials said that the president wanted to be in good form for the next day's ceremony at Turkey's first nuclear power plant, which is constructed by Russia's state nuclear energy company Rosatom. Erdogan had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the ceremony, but the Russian leader will not come in person. Instead, he will address the ceremony via video conference. Erdogan will also do so, sources said late Wednesday night.
On April 27, the first shipment of fuel will be delivered to Akkuyu, Turkey's first nuclear power plant in the southern province of Mersin. The plant escaped unscathed from the killer earthquake that ravaged 11 provinces in southern Turkey and killed more than 50,000 people.
Like many of Erdogan's openings this month, construction work on the site is still ongoing. However, once the fuel arrives, testing and other preparatory work on the first of four reactors can start. After that, the remaining three units are expected to become operational at a rate of one per year, according to Anadolu news agency. Once the plant is fully functional, it will generate 35 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and meet about 10% of the country's power consumption.
"God willing, we will continue our program tomorrow and ensure that Turkey attains its goals in the upcoming Century of Turkey," Erdogan tweeted.
Erdogan's health an issue of debate
Despite the president's general insouciant demeanor, Erdogan's health has been an issue of debate in Turkey since his prime minister days. Journalists, foreign analysts and ordinary people have often speculated about whether the president had diabetes, epilepsy or cancer. In 2006, Erdogan was rushed unconscious to a hospital. While the prime minister would have doubtless preferred to keep the visit under wraps, it made headlines when his driver and bodyguards jumped out of the car and slammed the doors with the key left in the ignition, activating the automatic locking system. As Erdogan lay unconscious inside, his guards struggled to break the armored car's window, aided by workers at a nearby construction site who brought a sledgehammer and a chisel. Doctors said he had a drop in blood sugar caused by exhaustion and fasting for Ramadan.
When Erdogan had surgery on his lower intestines in 2011, local journalists and international columnists claimed that he had advanced cancer. Then, a few months after the operation, the Turkish newspaper Taraf published an email between two colleagues at US-based Stratfor, which provides geopolitical analysis, claiming that doctors had removed a 20-centimeter (8-inch) portion of Erdogan's colon.
"The prognosis is not looking good, though. The surgeon said they were estimating two years for him," read the email. As rumors snowballed, Erdogan refused to discuss his health specifics but attacked the report as pure falsehood. "It is just God and only God who knows how long each of us will live," Erdogan said in an enraged speech to his party. "When the time of death comes, you cannot move it back or forth by an hour."
More recently, rumors of Erdogan's death took over on social media in November 2021, when he unexpectedly canceled a visit to a climate summit in Glasgow and cleared his schedule. A video of Erdogan appearing to walk with difficulty and a long tweet from an estranged AKP deputy calling on Erdogan to "come clean on his cancer" also fed the speculation. Suddenly, thousands began to post opinions and wishes for the president's health on social media. Some people shared photos of halva, a Turkish dessert offered to commemorate the dead, with the hashtag #olmus (#dead). Short satirical videos welcomed Erdogan to the afterlife.
The following day, the powerful Directorate of Communication posted a short video of Erdogan walking, saying, "Confidence to friends, fear to enemies." The message was followed by an announcement that judicial inquiries were launched into 30 people who shared "manipulative content" on Twitter using the "dead" hashtag.