Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a swipe yesterday at European countries that refused to let him campaign on their territory as he called at a rally in Bosnia for expatriate Turks to vote for him and his ruling AK Party in elections next month.
The presidential and parliamentary polls on June 24 will see Turkey switch to a powerful, executive presidential system that was narrowly approved in a referendum last year.
“As European Turks you have always supported us by a wide margin. Now we need your support again in the elections on June 24,” Erdogan told a rally in a Sarejevo sports hall, where supporters waved Turkish and Bosnian flags.
“Are you ready to support me with a record number of votes in the presidential elections?” he asked those gathered. “Are you ready to give the terrorist organisations [and] their local and foreign collaborators a strong Ottoman slap?”
Erdogan urged Turkish diaspora to get involved in the politics of their adopted countries and take citizenship.
“I have one request from you, take an active role in the political parties in the countries you live (in),” he told the crowd during a nearly hour-long speech. “You should take a place in those parliaments.”
Ahead of the 2017 referendum, ministers travelled to countries with big Turkish communities – including Germany and the Netherlands – to urge support for the change, but were stopped from campaigning by authorities citing security fears.
Erdogan nevertheless said last month that he was expecting to hold a campaign rally in a European city.
“At a time when renowned European countries claiming to be the cradle of civilisation failed, Bosnia and Herzegovina showed by allowing us to gather here that it is a real democracy, not a so-called one,” he told those gathered.
Several thousand people, according to an AFP reporter, converged on Sarajevo’s largest sports venue, Zetra, where the rally was held.
Many of the participants, who arrived from several European countries, including Germany, Austria, Denmark and France, were wearing scarves and banners carrying pictures of the Turkish leader, and waving Turkish flags.
Giant billboards welcomed Erdogan in Turkish and Bosnian.
Security for the event, the only one Erdogan will attend outside Turkey, was tight.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who heads a right-wing coalition opposed to Turkey joining the European Union, said last month that Erdogan would be barred from “trying to exploit” Europe’s Turkish communities.
Germany, home to about 3mn people of Turkish origin, says it will not allow foreign politicians to campaign on its territory ahead of elections.
Despite the ban in other European countries, Bosnia had not been expected to stop Turkish politicians campaigning on its soil, given the close ties between Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic and his SDA party and Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to Bosnian media, the AKP is also planning to open a representative office in Bosnia soon.
“Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and “Sultan Erdogan” the crowd chanted as Erdogan arrived accompanied by Izetbegovic.
Host Izetbegovic, who is also the Muslim member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, urged the crowd to vote for Erdogan labelling him a “man God sent to you”.
Half of Bosnia’s 3.5mn citizens are Muslims, one-third are Serbs, while Croats make some 15% of the population.
Earlier in the day, Erdogan pledged a multi-billion euro investment in a motorway connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo.
His visit stirred controversy in Bosnia and support for it was not unanimous.
“Why hold a rally in Bosnia rather than in Turkey. Of course, I mind,” pensioner Spomenka Beus, 74, told AFP.
However, Muhamed Yanik, a 20-year-old student, said he had travelled 28 hours by bus from Germany to see Erdogan. “If he says so, we will die for him.”
But others, such as theatre director Dino Mustafic, felt Erdogan’s visit harked back to the colonial times of the Ottoman Empire, when the Balkans, notably Bosnia, were ruled by the Ottomans for more than four centuries until 1878.
The event would be an occasion for “poor local people to euphorically applaud their sultan”, he tweeted.
Bosnian Serb leader Milord Dodik accused the Turkish leader of “interfering” in Bosnia’s affairs.
Thousands of Turks came from Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, and from across the Balkans for the rally.
“Turkey is our mother nation,” said Coskun Celiloglu, a Macedonian student of Turkish descent. “We came to Sarajevo just for one day to support our saviour Erdogan.”
The most popular – and divisive – politician in recent Turkish history, Erdogan has ruled for 15 years, overseeing a period of rapid economic growth.
However, a crackdown against his opponents has led rights groups and Western allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member to voice concerns about Turkey’s record on civil rights and Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.
On Saturday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency reported that there had been tip-offs about a potential assassination attempt against Erdogan while he visits the Balkans.
Asked about the report, Erdogan said: “This news reached me and indeed that is why I am here ... such threats and operations cannot deter us from this path.”
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