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Erdogan and Ince rally supporters as Turkish campaign enters final hours

Supporters of leading presidential candidates gather in Istanbul and Ankara ahead of Sunday's elections
Supporters of the AKP (left) and the CHP (right) at rallies in major cities in Turkey (Reuters/composite)

Turkey's two biggest parties staged mass rallies on Friday as the country entered the final hours of campaigning ahead of elections on Sunday that polls suggest could be the tightest since Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Erdogan, the incumbent president and Turkey's dominant political figure, addressed thousands of supporters in Istanbul on Friday morning, while Muharrem Ince of the Republican People's Party (CHP) was due to hold his own rally in Ankara, the capital, later in the day.

Ince has surprised analysts by energising what had previously been thought of as a one-horse race with a wide-reaching presidential campaign in which he has sought to attract Kurdish and religious voters - two groups usually hostile to the CHP, which has traditionally appealed to nationalist and secularist voters.

On Thursday, huge crowds turned out in the western city of Izmir, a long-time CHP stronghold, to see Ince, who told the rally that Erdogan had become a "tired old man who no longer has dreams".

In a reference to Turkey's recent economic problems, Ince joked that Erdogan could at least enjoy his retirement if he lost because the CHP would bring inflation under control.

He added that he intended to create an inclusive cabinet that would take in members of all Turkey's main parties, including the AKP.

"We will unite Turkey. We will embrace Turkey," he said. "Everything is ready. The team is ready."

In Istanbul, however, Erdogan warned that Turkey faced chaos without him at the helm.

"Are you in for a strong government on 24 June ?" Erdogan asked the crowds at the Yenikapi rallying ground in Istanbul, who enthusiastically chanted "yes" in harmony.

"I believe this job is over in Istanbul. With Allah's permission, Istanbul has made its decision."

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an election rally in Istanbul (Reuters)

The 24 June parliamentary and presidential polls are potentially pivotal for Turkey as they will be the first held following the 2017 referendum on the creation of a new "super-presidency" in Turkey.

The new executive presidency would allow the president to appoint and sack ministers, abolish the role of prime minister and give the president the ability to declare states of emergency.

The referendum on the constitutional change passed narrowly, however, and the three biggest cities all voted against the changes.

The AKP have been the largest party in five elections in Turkey since 2002, while Erdogan has long been the country's most popular politician.

But while analysts believe the AKP will still end up as the largest party on Sunday, it is possible that it could lose its majority. The party is running as part of the People's Alliance, an electoral alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The crucial factor is likely to be whether the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), whose presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, is currently in jail, is able to pass the 10 percent threshold which parties must achieve in order to return to parliament. 

In addition, polls have suggested that Erdogan may not win the first round of the presidential vote outright, leading to a second round of voting on 8 July, in which it is likely Ince and Erdogan will face off. In that case, the votes of Turkey's Kurdish minority, who have traditionally supported Erdogan, will again be crucial.

On Wednesday, Erdogan for the first time acknowledged that there was a real risk of his party not achieving a majority.

"If the People's Alliance gets over 300 seats, the issue of (coalitions) is finished," Erdogan said in an interview with Kral FM and Kral Pop Radio.

"If it is under 300, then we could seek a coalition. That's a separate matter."

'Intense crackdown'

Critics have warned that Sunday's elections would not be taking place in a free and fair atmosphere, not least due to the state of emergency imposed following the July 2016 coup attempt.

Amnesty International on Friday warned that the elections in Turkey were taking place against an "intense crackdown" on human rights in the country. A court on Thursday ruled that Amnesty's Turkey director, Tanar Kilic, was himself to remain imprisoned on terror charges after already spending a year in jail.

“The shockwaves of Turkey’s post-coup attempt crackdown continue to devastate the lives of a vast number of people including Taner Kilic who has spent more than a year behind bars,” said Gauri Van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Europe director.

“Under the cloak of the state of emergency, Turkish authorities have deliberately and methodically set about dismantling civil society, locking up human rights defenders and journalists, shutting down organisations and creating a suffocating climate of fear.”

Twitter users and opposition media circulated pictures of fake election leaflets distributed in Ankara that appeared to show the CHP promising a crackdown on religious groups, the HDP supporting Kurdish separatism and linking the leader of the Iyi Party, Meral Aksener, to the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government blames for the coup.

Another major concern has been the economy - the Turkish lira has lost 20 percent of its value since the beginning of the year and the election has thrown up further uncertainty about the economy's long-term prospects.

Additional reporting by Reuters.