By Can Sezer and Jonathan Spicer
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan has defied forecasts of his political demise in Turkey's elections, rallying voters with a potent mix of religious conservatism and nationalism that looks set to propel his rule into a third decade on Sunday.
Though he has yet to clinch victory - Erdogan must first beat Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Sunday's runoff - his momentum has only grown since he emerged with a solid lead in the first round on May 14, and analysts fully expect him to win.
Victory would entrench the rule of a leader who has transformed Turkey, reshaping the secular state founded 100 years ago to fit his pious vision while consolidating power in his hands in what critics see as a march to autocracy.
On the global stage, Erdogan has pivoted the NATO member away from its traditional Western allies, forged ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and turned Turkey into an assertive regional power.
Critics say he has increasingly polarised the nation during his 20-year rule, including in this election campaign. But he argued the contrary ahead of Sunday's vote and said his opponents were "poisoning political discourse".
"We will continue to embrace our nation, which is a way of thinking that comes from our culture," he told CNN Turk in an interview on Thursday. "If we win on May 28, with God's permission, every one of our 85 million people will win."
The vote has been seen as one of the most consequential since the modern Turkish state was founded 100 years ago, with the opposition sensing its best chance yet of unseating Erdogan and reversing many of his far-reaching changes to Turkey.
But it has instead underlined his staying power, wrong-footing opponents who expected him to suffer the blowback of a cost-of-living crisis and criticism of the state's response to earthquakes in February in which more than 50,000 people died.
Critics and earthquake survivors had expressed anger over a slow initial quake response by the government and lax enforcement of building rules - failures they said cost lives.
But his Islamist-rooted AK Party emerged top in 10 of the 11 provinces hit by the earthquakes, helping it secure along with its allies a parliamentary majority in the May 14 vote.
The gloves have come off on the campaign trail as Erdogan seeks to rally his conservative base, calling his opponents "pro-LGBT".
Seeking to tap Turkey's deep-running nationalism, he also seized on Kurdish support for Kilicdaroglu to accuse his rival of siding with terrorism and ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - a claim Kilicdaroglu called slanderous.
Erdogan repeatedly drew attention to a doctored video to accuse Kilicdaroglu of ties to the PKK, which has been waging an insurgency in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.
'RELIGIOUS AND NATIONAL PRIDE'
"Erdogan has fused religious and national pride, offering voters an aggressive anti-elitism that operates at the domestic and international level," said Nicholas Danforth, Turkey historian and non-resident fellow at think tank ELIAMEP.
"People know who he is and what his vision for the country is, and it seems a lot of them approve," he said.
"That said, just because he has the wind in his sails doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing. The economy will keep getting worse, the opposition isn't going way, and a lot of world leaders don't like or trust him any more than they did yesterday," he said.
Critics say another five years of his rule risk further damage to a democracy they say has been undermined as he amassed power around an executive presidency, muzzled dissent, jailed critics and opponents and seized control of the media, judiciary and the economy.
Erdogan portrays himself as a defender of democracy who has pushed back against military interference in Turkish politics: he survived an attempted military coup in 2016 when rogue soldiers attacked parliament and killed 250 people.
Helped by a largely supportive Turkish media, his campaign sought to focus attention on economic successes and away from the cost-of-living crisis.
The month ahead of the vote was peppered with celebrations of industrial milestones, including the launch of Turkey's first electric car and the inauguration of its first amphibious assault ship, built in Istanbul to carry Turkish-made drones.
Erdogan also flicked the switch on Turkey's first delivery of natural gas from a Black Sea reserve, promising households free supplies, and inaugurated its first nuclear power station in a ceremony attended virtually by Putin.
The economy was one of Erdogan's main strengths in the first decade of his rule, when Turkey enjoyed a protracted boom with new roads, hospitals and schools and rising living standards.
But it became a political problem as the government embarked on an unorthodox policy of slashing interest rates in the face of soaring inflation. Aimed at boosting growth, the policy crashed the currency in late 2021 and worsened inflation.
Erdogan grew up in a poor district of Istanbul and attended Islamic vocational school, entering politics as a local party youth branch leader and becoming Istanbul mayor in 1994.
He served jail time in 1999 over a poem he recited in 1997 comparing mosques to barracks, minarets to bayonets and the faithful to an army.
After taking to the national stage as head of the AK Party, he became prime minister in 2003.
His government tamed Turkey's military, which had toppled four governments since 1960, and in 2005 began talks to secure a decades-long ambition to join the European Union - a process that later came to a grinding halt.
Western allies initially saw Erdogan's Turkey as a vibrant mix of Islam and democracy that could be a model for Middle East states struggling to shake off autocracy and stagnation.
But his drive for greater powers polarised Turks and alarmed international partners. Fervent supporters saw it as just reward for a leader who put Islamic teachings at the core of public life in a country with strong secularist traditions and championed the pious working classes.
Opponents portrayed it as a lurch into authoritarianism.
After the 2016 coup attempt authorities launched a massive crackdown, jailing more than 77,000 people pending trial. Rights groups say Turkey became the world's biggest jailer of journalists for a time.
Erdogan's government said the purge was justified by threats from coup supporters, as well as Islamic State and the PKK.
At home, a sprawling new presidential palace complex on the edge of Ankara became a striking sign of his new powers, while abroad Turkey became increasingly assertive, intervening in Syria, Iraq and Libya and often deploying Turkish-made military drones with decisive force.
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