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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) visits the mausoleum of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk before a meeting of the High Military Council in Ankara, on August 4. / AFP/Getty Images

ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was at his incendiary best as he took to the stage in front of more than a million cheering fans on Sunday, a week out from presidential elections he hopes will transform Turkey's future.

"Like Hitler, who sought to establish a perfect Aryan race, Israel is seeking the same," he boomed out to his supporters, the second time he has compared Israel to Adolf Hitler in a month.

It's the kind of rhetoric that worries many, such as Ali Etrati, a victim of police violence at mass anti-government rallies last year. He fears the combative prime minister is using emotional foreign policy issues to sow divisions between secular and more conservative Muslim voters and will manipulate the presidency to increase his personal wealth and power.

"I suppose this is democracy," the young protester said. "People know the facts, and if they still want to vote him into even more power, then what can we say?"

The 60-year-old bearish prime minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to become Turkey's first directly elected president. Barred from the premiership for a fourth term, he is seeking to upgrade the largely ceremonial post of president into one with sweeping executive powers to extend his dominance over Turkish politics.

Amid concerns about his increasingly authoritarian rule and his move away from Turkey's secular traditions since becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan enjoys massive support among the country's majority Muslim voters. Most polls predict he will win a first-round win over two rival candidates.

His expected victory would have a big impact not only on domestic policies but on the West, where Turkey - which straddles Europe and Asia - has played a pivotal role as a NATO member because of its strategic location.

Erdogan's popularity does not seem damaged by the brutal police force used to quell last year's protests, in which nine people were killed; a corruption scandal that has ensnared the upper echelons of his government and members of his family; or an Islamist agenda.

His moves against the country's democratic traditions have not hurt him, either. Earlier this year, Erdogan tried to ban the social media site Twitter, and he enjoys near blanket favorable coverage by the Turkish media. Student members of a Turkish youth union were arrested this week in the western coastal city of Izmir after displaying a banner reading "Erdogan Killer."

Rather, Erdogan, who inherited a steep recession when he took office, has benefited from a growing economy on his watch.

Controversial foreign policy decisions, particularly support for the Islamic militant opposition in Syria, have been matched with belligerent rhetoric against Turkish allies, such as the United States.

He recently said on pro-government television that he no longer communicates directly with President Obama, described Egypt's military president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who engineered the overthrow of an Islamist president last year) as a "tyrant," and was outspoken against Israel's latest offensive in Gaza.

The former Istanbul mayor, who was jailed in 1999 for religious incitement, has run on the theme of a "New Turkey," which supporters interpret as a stout defense of Islamic values.

At the Istanbul rally on Sunday, fans rolled out a banner reading: "Istanbul will be the seat of the Ottoman Empire."

"I love him. Turkey is becoming stronger among its brothers in the Middle East. We want a pious leader," said Ilker Aydogan, donning a baseball cap depicting Erdogan and a map of Palestine. "Those Gezi Park protesters are being manipulated by Israel and the West."

According to a Pew Research Center poll released last week, Turks are almost evenly split between those who are happy with Erdogan's leadership and the state of the nation, and those who believe he is leading the country down the wrong path. The poll found that highly observant Turkish Muslims were much more likely to support Erdogan, and that America's image in Turkey was overwhelmingly negative.

Some analysts warn that Erdogan's approach of "with me or against me" is polarizing Turkey and could have a destabilizing effect in a troubled region.

"He thinks that this kind of anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric strengthens him at home," said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. "It cements the support he has behind him, but it undermines him internationally. It polarizes the country and makes it less governable."

Pointing to Erdogan's broad support among the Muslim population, opposition politician Binnaz Toprak acknowledged Erdogan has a virtual lock on an election in which two-thirds of the voters belong to the religious right.

"You will be surprised," she said, "at how little democracy can survive under an executive presidency."



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Turkey faces new path in presidential vote

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