Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lead Saturday prayers at Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia mosque, ahead of a battle for his political life against a powerful secular rival.
The 69-year-old will be 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.
Erdogan has never faced a more energised or united opposition than the one led 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 over 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.
The math is not adding up in Erdogan’s favour and most polls show him trailing his secular rival by a few points.
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.
“Are you ready to bring democracy to this country? To bring peace to this country? I promise, I am ready too,” Kilicdaroglu told a rally in Ankara.
Erdogan was put in the uncomfortable position on Friday night television of being asked what he would do if he lost.
The veteran leader bristled and pledged to respect the vote.
“This is a very silly question,” he said.
“We came to power in Turkey by democratic means, with the approval of our people. If our people were to change their mind, we would do what democracy requires.”
His campaign path to re-election will take him to the scene Saturday 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 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a secular post-Ottoman Turkey in 1923.
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.