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Erdogan leads prayers on eve of fight for political life

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, led prayers, emulating a ritual that Ottoman sultans performed before they led their men off to war
— Istanbul (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan led Saturday prayers at Istanbul's iconic Hagia Sophia mosque before entering the election battle of his political life against a powerful secular rival.

The 69-year-old was emulating a ritual that Ottoman sultans performed before they led their men off to war as he braces for Sunday's parliamentary and presidential ballot.

A shout of "God is greatest" went up over Istanbul's old city as the sun set and news of Erdogan's arrival at the mosque filtered in.

Erdogan has never faced a more energised or united opposition than the one spearheaded by retired civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his disparate alliance of six parties.

The Turkish leader excelled at splitting his rivals and forging unlikely unions while winning one national election after another for 21 years.

But his Islamic-rooted party is reeling from anger over Turkey's economic meltdown and a crackdown on civil liberties during Erdogan's second decade of rule.

The six opposition parties have put aside their political and cultural differences and joined forces for the lone task of pushing Erdogan out.

They are officially supported by Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party -- a group that accounts for at least 10 percent of the vote.

"Enough is enough," Kurdish housewife Hafize Timurtas told AFP, moments before campaigning officially concluded. "We can't take this anymore."

- 'A very silly question' -

The maths is not adding up in Erdogan's favour and most polls show him trailing his secular rival by a few points.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu has formed the most powerful opposition coalition to ever face Erdogan

Kilicdaroglu is now desperately trying to break the 50-percent threshold and avoid a May 28 runoff that could give Erdogan a chance to regroup and reframe the debate.

Kilicdaroglu on Saturday laid carnations at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- a revered military commander who forged a secular state out of the Ottoman Empire's ruins in 1923.

It was a defining moment that underscored the contrasting visions the two men have for their increasingly polarised nation of 85 million people.

"Ataturk was open to innovation. He embraced change with courage," Kilicdaroglu said.

"Focus all your energy on building the new, not fighting the old."

The strength of the opposition's campaign put Erdogan in the uncomfortable position of being asked on Friday night television what he would do if he lost.

"This is a very silly question," Erdogan fumed. "We would do what democracy requires."

He projected confidence before supporters on Saturday.

"Tomorrow night we will win," Erdogan promised before joining the crowd in a rendition of his campaign song. "We will emerge stronger from the ballot box."

- 'The West got mad' -

Erdogan's campaign path to re-election ended at the scene of one of the more controversial decisions of his recent rule.

The Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral -- once the world's largest -- before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.

It was converted into a museum as part of the modern republic's efforts to remove religion from public life.

The opposition enjoys strong support in Turkey's main cities, including Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul

Erdogan's decision to convert it back into a mosque in 2020 solidified his hero status among his religious supporters and contributed to growing Western unease with his rule.

"The entire West got mad -- but I did it," Erdogan said on Saturday.

Erdogan has played up religious themes and used culture wars to try and energise his conservative and nationalist base.

He brands the opposition as a "pro-LGBT" lobby that takes orders from outlawed Kurdish militants and is bankrolled by the West.

The strident message appears to be aimed at taking voters' minds off Turkey's most dire economic crisis of his entire rule.

The official annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year.

Economists think the real figure could have been much higher and blame the crisis on Erdogan's unconventional financial theories.

Kilicdaroglu pledges to do away with them immediately after taking office.

- 'We're not happy' -

But the starkness of the choice confronting Turkey's 64 million voters is accompanied by soaring tensions and lingering fears over what Erdogan would do if he lost a narrow vote.

Kilicdaroglu wore a bulletproof vest to his two rallies on Friday after receiving what his party described as a credible threat on his life.

Turkey's displaced earthquake victims are returning to the disaster zone to vote

Kilicdaroglu's running mate Ekrem Imamoglu -- a popular figure who beat Erdogan's ally in controversial 2019 Istanbul mayoral polls -- was pelted by rocks days earlier while touring Turkey's conservative heartland.

Turkish officials launched a formal investigation and made some arrests.

But several senior officials accused the Istanbul mayor of provoking the incident.

The voting will include southeastern regions that lie in ruins in the wake of a February earthquake that claimed more than 50,000 lives.

The level of anger in these traditionally pro-Erdogan regions could also help swing Sunday's outcome.

"We're not happy to be voting in the middle of rubble, but we want the government to change," Diber Simsek told AFP near her tent in completely destroyed Antakya.