Turkey: Erdogan, Vowing to ‘Drain the Swamp,’ Claims 1.7 Million People Joined Campaign Rally

ISTANBUL, TURKIYE- MAY 7: Turkish President and AK Party Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan add
Ozan Guzelce / dia images via Getty

Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from a mysterious illness that sidelined him from campaigning in the last week of April, held a rally this weekend in Istanbul that his party claimed attracted 1.7 million people.

The “Mother of All Rallies,” as Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) dubbed the event, is one of the last such shows of force in anticipation of the May 14 presidential election.

Polling indicates that the strongman is facing one of the most intense challenges of his career against the head of the secularist opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Kılıçdaroğlu, a soft-spoken septuagenarian technocrat, has been a staple of Turkish politics for decades but this time counts on the country’s anti-Erdogan forces uniting. Most significantly, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) did not run a presidential candidate in the 2023 race, leaving its sizable chunk of followers free to support the CHP.

The CHP held its own, smaller events this weekend and, as usual, mobs of Islamist Erdogan supporters showed up to stone and beat the party’s supporters.

The May 14 election is not expected to be a fully free and fair race. In the aftermath of the alleged failed coup against Erdogan in 2016, the Islamist regime shut down dozens of media outlets, leaving mostly pro-Erdogan propaganda mouthpieces, and arrested thousands of people on the grounds that they allegedly supported the coup, often with minimal evidence. In the aftermath of the alleged failed coup, Erdogan turned Turkey into the world’s worst jailer of journalists, a title since ceded to China. Violence against Kılıçdaroğlu supporters is a common occurrence and the candidate has publicly expressed concern that Erdogan’s government will also commit election fraud.

Turks are already voting abroad and as part of early voting programs. One of the country’s most famous celebrities, the pop star Tarkan, posted a photo on Monday of himself casting a ballot and encouraging his countrymen to participate in the election.

If no presidential candidate receives upwards of 50 percent of the vote on May 14, the top two candidates will proceed to a runoff vote on May 28.

Erdogan assumed the prime ministership of the country ten years ago; he has been president since 2014.

Erdogan hosted his “Mother of All Rallies” giving the full impression that he was running in a real election on Saturday, rattling off a host of promises and alleged successes of his extended tenure in power.

Turkish President and Leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (4th R) and his wife Emine Erdogan (4th L) attend an election rally at Cumhuriyet Square in Kirklareli, Turkiye on May 08, 2023. (Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“In 21 years, we have provided jobs and food to 21 million people added to our population. We built 10.5 million new houses in 21 years and provided families home,” the president said, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. The president vowed to greenlight a host of infrastructure projects, including a new tunnel under the Sea of Marmara and expansion of the nation’s fossil fuel industry.

Anadolu claimed 1.7 million people attended the rally. The Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported from the event that the claim was not unbelievable, noting that the AKP needed a tarmac at the site of the old Atatürk airport to fit so many people.

“Kılıçdaroğlu staged a smaller but still-impressive rally that filled a park on the Asian side of the city facing the Sea of Marmara the day before,” AFP noted. “But Erdogan and his party charted 10,000 buses to bring in people from 39 provinces for what the president dubbed ‘the rally of the century’ on Sunday.”

In addition to promising economic prosperity – once his signature campaign vow, now greatly tarnished by soaring inflation – Erdogan has made fighting alleged “terrorism” a hallmark of his campaign, signaling a greater crackdown on Turkey’s Kurdish population. Turkish Kurdistan, located in the nation’s east, is an HDP and anti-Erdogan stronghold. Erdogan has branded the HDP indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist separatist terror group, and imprisoned much of the party’s leadership, including its former presidential candidate and leader Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş was forced to campaign from prison in the 2018 election.

In a stump speech on Monday, Erdogan vowed to “drain the swamp” of allegedly terrorism.

“We will resolutely continue our fight against terrorist organizations and the forces behind them,” Anadolu quoted Erdogan as saying. “We will completely drain the swamp of terror, which has neared completion within our borders, in northern Iraq and Syria.”

Erdogan has attempted to scare potential voters by claiming that Kılıçdaroğlu would endanger the country by freeing Demirtaş, who endorsed the CHP candidate from prison.

“They would take Selo [Demirtaş] out of prison. What did this Selo do? They killed our 51 Kurdish brothers in Diyarbakır,” Erdogan claimed on Monday, accusing Demirtaş, without evidence, of supporting PKK attacks. “For this, he is now in Edirne in prison. I’m going to Edirne a little later, and I’ll call him out. May 14 is very important for this.”

The CHP has largely campaigned on promises to end Erdogan’s authoritarian Islamism and restore the Turkish republic to the secular ambitions of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who also founded the CHP. Campaigning has proven a challenge, however, as Erdogan supporters regularly appear at CHP events to physically assault attendees. On Sunday, a mob stoned the anti-Erdogan mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, while traveling to deliver a stump speech in Erzurum, leaving several CHP supporters, and apparently one child, bloodied.

“Never mind (the attackers). They will regret what they did. Words of love, peace, tranquility, abundance and fertility should fall upon us,” İmamoğlu told the crowd after authorities subdued the violence, taking a moment to criticize the police in the AKP-run city for failing to prevent the assault. “The police who are watching the events, we are watching you. The governor of this city, the chief of police, we are watching you. The police, there are citizens injured here, and you are just watching. Governor and Mayor of Erzurum, I will file a criminal complaint against you all. You provoke people.”

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