Turkey's Erdogan Reemerges, Appearing Frail, After Mystery Illness

Islamist Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a video address on Thursday in which he spoke softly and appeared frail, his first live appearance since suddenly falling ill during a live television interview on Tuesday.

Erdogan’s office has denied a flurry of rumors that followed his disappearance after the cancellation of his interview with Turkey’s Ulke TV on Tuesday, which included unsubstantiated speculation on social media networks that he had been poisoned or suffered a heart attack. The president’s spokesmen insisted that Erdogan was suffering from what was initially described as a “cold” or “stomach flu.” By Thursday, Ankara had reached a consensus, describing Erdogan as suffering from a gastroenteritis infection – essentially a “stomach flu” – and claimed that he would be back on the campaign trail as soon as possible.

Turkey has scheduled presidential elections for May 14. Erdogan is facing a significant challenge from Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu; polling has consistently shown Kılıçdaroğlu as a competitive or leading candidate. Erdogan has prevented Turks from participating in free and fair elections in past contests, however, through the imprisonment of opposition candidates and suspected political dissidents.

Shortly before Erdogan fell ill, Turkish authorities announced a “counter-terror” operation that resulted in the arrests of 110 people, some of them public officials, accused of having ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist group. Mass arrests of dissidents on spurious charges of “terrorism” have been a hallmark of Erdogan’s tenure.

The Kurdish population is critical to Kılıçdaroğlu’s victory in the election; polling indicates that, without sizeable Kurdish support, Kılıçdaroğlu’s coalition – which includes significant opposition to Kurdish political grounds – is not enough to overcome Erdogan’s grassroots Islamist support, assuming a free and fair election.

The Turkish president delivered an address on Thursday at an event he had initially intended to attend in person: the inauguration of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, the first in the nation, built with the help of Russia. Russian leader Vladimir Putin also addressed the event virtually from Moscow.

“With the delivery of nuclear fuels by air and sea to our power plant, Akkuyu has now gained the status of a nuclear plant,” Erdogan said, according to a translation from the state-run Anadolu news agency.

“Last year, the European Commission accepted nuclear energy as ‘green energy’ and eliminated the hesitations on this issue. With Akkuyu, we made our country a part of these developments,” he said. “Like many important projects, Akkuyu was realized with a financing model that does not burden our national budget. Akkuyu is our biggest joint investment with Russia.”

Erdogan announced that Akkuyu would be fully operational by 2028 and was one of at least three nuclear power projects Turkey would pursue in the immediate term:

Observers described Erdogan in his address as appearing “recovered but fatigued.” Turkish media noted that, while Erdogan fulfilled his commitment to addressing the opening of the power plant, organizers delayed the event for nearly three hours with no explanation, leading to early reports suggesting Erdogan would not appear.

Erdogan’s health became a sudden top-tier issue in the race after he walked out of a live television interview on Tuesday with minimal explanation.

Erdogan posted a message on social media late Tuesday confirming he would make no public appearances on Wednesday and describing his ailment as a “minor inconvenience.”

“I would like to thank each and every member of my noble nation, each of my brothers and sisters, who conveyed their thoughts and prayers over the minor inconvenience I had during the broadcast due to my busy work,” the statement read. “Today, I will rest at home on the advice of doctors. … With God’s permission, we will continue our program from tomorrow.”

By late Wednesday, Turkish presidential spokesmen were aggressively denying rumors that Erdogan was on his deathbed, poisoned or dying of heart failure. The rumors largely surfaced on Twitter and Telegram, but the Chinese state-run CGTN also reportedly claimed that Erdogan was facing potentially fatal heart disease. (CGTN later retracted the report.)

Erdogan’s government blamed the Turkish political opposition for the rumors.

“They (the opposition) are trying to gain political advantage through baseless distortions even about the health condition of our president. Our president is on duty with great strength, health, and vigor,” Communications Director Fahrettin Altun asserted on Thursday, without identifying any opposition figure as the source of the unverified reports.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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