ISTANBUL - Hundreds of thousands of ruling AK party faithful attended Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's largest-yet presidential rally in Istanbul Sunday, a lavish event that, according to local media reports, saw nearly 5,000 buses — many of them belonging to state ministries and local party authorities — funnel supporters into a large outdoor sports complex.
Erdogan, the candidate that early polls favor to become the 12th president of modern Turkey in upcoming elections, has unleashed an energetic nationwide campaign with TV advertisements and billboards akin to a U.S.-style campaign.
Analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels says the prime minister’s campaign differs greatly from those of rival candidates Selahattin Demirtas and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who have financed their rallies primarily with donations.
"When you look at the campaign of the prime minister, it is a well-orchestrated campaign that relies on both the machinery of the ruling party and on substantial resources that are at the command of the prime minister," he said.
According to Ulgen, Erdogan has not only turned public appearances as sitting prime minister into campaign stops — some of them state-financed — but crisscrossed the country in the prime ministerial jet to address supporters, even beginning his campaign before the July 31 start date set by Turkey's election board.
While Erdogan's political rivals and officials with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe have accused the prime minister of illegal and unfair campaign practices, his office has denied that any of his campaign activities violate country's election laws.
Observers also say Erdogan's campaign tactics contrast from his opponents by making foreign policy a strong theme. At his Istanbul rally, Erdogan again condemned Israel's offensive against Gaza, saying that Palestinians are right to resist Israel, which "will drown in the blood" it sheds.
“Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target,” Erdogan told the stadium packed with supporters. “They kill women so that they will not give birth to Palestinians; they kill babies so that they won’t grow up; they kill men so they can’t defend their country ... They will drown in the blood they shed.”
Despite strong condemnation from Turkey's western allies for comparing current Israeli policies with those of the Nazi's, observers say Erdogan is well aware that such rhetoric plays well to his conservative Sunni Muslim voting base. He also denied charges of anti-Semitism.
Erdogan has also been increasingly playing the nationalist card, a campaign tactic that, opinion polls indicate, could be putting him well ahead of his rivals — and well above the 50 percent needed to win outright in the first round of voting on August 10, which would obviate the need for a runoff contest.
The prime minister is also setting himself apart from his opponents by declaring that if he wins he will be a far more assertive president. Until now the presidency has been strictly non-partisan and largely a figurative position with most power lying in parliament.
Analyst Ulgen says as this is the first time the president will be directly elected by the people, which would allow Erdogan to claim a mandate for a strong presidency.
"He may view the presidency as the extension of the executive post that he used to occupy as the prime minister, and basically operate as the de-facto prime minister and therefore continue with his polarizing tactics," Ulgen said.
Erdogan has already warned in several interviews and speeches that if elected he will be a partisan president, claiming it's impossible to be impartial. Analysts warn that could mean more political and social polarization and division that has characterized much of his decade-long rule as prime minister.
But during that same decade, Turkey has experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity, transforming into a regional power with a vibrant emerging economy.
It is a legacy that, analysts say, Erdogan is banking on to make him president.