ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his main challenger, Muharrem Ince, made a final push for support at rival rallies in Istanbul on Saturday, a day before presidential and parliamentary elections.
Erdogan's call for a snap election has resulted in an increasingly close and bitterly fought campaign. The winner of Sunday's presidential contest will acquire sweeping new executive powers under a constitutional overhaul backed by Erdogan and endorsed last year in a referendum.
Ince of the center-left CHP Party held a large rally in Istanbul. Organizers claimed that 5 million people attended.
The challenger stuck to his theme of unity and justice. "We promise a different tomorrow," Ince said to roars from the crowd.
Ince has held more than 100 rallies across the country, many in traditional strongholds of Erdogan, drawing large crowds equal to if not surpassing those of the president.
In his last day of campaigning, Erdogan chose to hold a series of smaller meetings in several electoral strongholds across Istanbul. The rallies drew tens of thousands and were seen as an attempt by the president to consolidate his vote. In the last few days, several pro-Erdogan newspaper columnists have voiced fears that his supporters may stay at home and not vote.
In his final rallies, Erdogan accused Ince of lacking experience to be president, pointing out he has never held a ministerial post or any position of power. The president also sought to put a positive spin on the situation, saying, "God willing, tomorrow evening we will be able to experience happiness together."
The president's rallies all were broadcast live by much of the media, unlike Ince's mass meeting, which received scant coverage. Most of the mainstream media is either under direct or indirect control of the president. Despite strict legal regulations ensuring fair coverage to all candidates, little or none has been given by the media to Erdogan's five challengers.
"We are seeing a competitive election. That does not mean the elections are fair and free," said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Edam research group. "Given that Selahattin Demirtas [the pro-Kurdish HDP candidate] is in prison [on terrorism charges], and there is a media blackout that is affecting Iyi party presidential candidate Meral Aksener ... the political contest is far from being free and fair, but nonetheless it's a contest."
Hundreds of thousands of supporters of the imprisoned Demirtas held a rally in the city of Van in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast. HDP officials accused police of attacking attendees after the meeting, injuring women and children.
However, concerns about the possibility of electoral rigging or voter suppression continue to loom.
Ince urged supporters to show "36 hours of mobilization" for the voting and the count to ensure the elections proceed fairly.
Last year's referendum was marred by allegations of fraud after the Supreme Electoral Board issued a last-minute rule change that allowed unstamped ballots to be counted.
Ince promised that if there were concerns about Sunday's vote, he would lead 55,000 lawyers to the Supreme Electoral Board to ensure a fair vote.
Erdogan shot back Saturday, claiming Ince's comment was an "admission of defeat," and adding, "Mr. Muharrem, we are living in a state of law."
Civic organizations and opposition parties are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers to monitor Sunday's elections. Eight international organizations also are following the polls.
In the last few days, though, dozens of accredited electoral observers from the HDP have been detained under anti-terrorism laws. On Saturday, 11 more HDP observers were held in the capital, Ankara, on suspicion of planning a "provocative action" during voting, according to the official state news agency. The elections are being held under emergency rule, which gives security forces broad powers to detain.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also attacked international monitors Saturday, accusing some of them of having hidden agendas. "We believe that this is not correct. We think that it means intervention in the elections in one way or another," he said.
This week the state news agency published a story claiming international monitors were planning to create discord in the country by spreading false allegations about voter irregularities. This week, two international monitors were refused entry into Turkey.
The outcome of Sunday's vote is expected to be close. Given that, analysts warned that the opposition was ready for a fight over the fairness of the election.