TURKISH ELECTIONS: President Erdogan to lead prayers in Hagia Sophia in defiant move for his political survival

Erdogan supervises the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque

On Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will lead prayers at Istanbul's Hagia Sophia mosque, a symbolic move ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The 69-year-old is facing a strong opposition led by retired civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has formed an alliance of six parties to push Erdogan out of power. Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party has been criticized for the country's economic downturn and crackdown on civil liberties during his two-decade-long rule.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu erdogan

The opposition parties have united against Erdogan and are officially supported by Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party. Most polls show Erdogan trailing his secular rival by a few points, and Kilicdaroglu is trying to break the 50-percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

Erdogan has played up religious themes to energize his conservative and nationalist base and brand the opposition as a "pro-LGBT" lobby taking orders from the West. Despite soaring tensions and fears over what Erdogan would do if he lost a narrow vote, he pledged to respect the vote if the people changed their minds.

'The West got mad' 

The Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral — once the world's largest — before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.

It was converted into a museum when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a secular post-Ottoman Turkey in 1923.

Erdogan's decision to convert it back into a mosque in 2020 solidified his hero status among his religious supporters and contributed to growing Western unease with his rule.

"The entire West got mad — but I did it," Erdogan told an Istanbul rally on Saturday.

Erdogan has played up religious themes and used culture wars to try and energise his conservative and nationalist base.

He brands the opposition as a "pro-LGBT" lobby that takes orders from outlawed Kurdish militants and is bankrolled by the West.

The strident message appears to be aimed at taking voters' minds off Turkey's most dire economic crisis of his entire rule.