ISTANBUL - With a huge rally on the approach to the Bosphorus waterway, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will launch a final electoral push on Sunday to stifle rivals he described this weekend as an 'alliance of evil' in cahoots with terrorism.
Erdogan, who vowed last week to wipe out Twitter in Turkey for carrying anonymous postings accusing him and associates of corrupt dealings, accused the networking site of "systematic character assassination". The site remained blocked on Saturday in Turkey, access denied as a "protection measure".
Leading condemnation from Western governments and rights groups, the White House said the Twitter ban ahead of March 30 local elections undermined democracy and free speech. Criticism reflected growing concern over events in a NATO country held up in the past as a template for a stable Muslim democracy.
The setting for Sunday's rally on reclaimed land beside the Sea of Marmara matches the drama of Turkish politics since police graft raids in December triggered a vitriolic power struggle between Erdogan and Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who had helped him secure his hold on power over the last decade.
In a whirlwind of rallies across Turkey, Erdogan has railed against "the individual from Pennsylvania" - Gulen lives in self-imposed exile in the United States - accusing his Hizmet network of posting manipulated telephone taps on Twitter and concocting criminal investigations to implicate his government and family in graft. Gulen denies such accusations.
"This is a terrorist organisation," Erdogan said in reference to Hizmet, which has a network of supporters in the police and judiciary that the prime minister describes as an anti-democratic 'parallel state'. "It is our duty to take the necessary measures against this organisation."
He accused rival parties - the main secularist opposition CHP, the nationalist MHP and the Kurdish BDP - of conspiring against him for the coming elections which, although only local, are the first real test of his popularity since anti-government riots last summer and the current corruption scandal.
"This is an alliance of evil. Ankara will break this alliance on March 30. Ankara, will you break this alliance of the CHP, MHP, BDP and Pennsylvania?" he asked to loud cheers of "yes" from tens of thousands in the crowd.
Ankara is the Republican People's Party's (CHP) best hope of achieving a significant victory over Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party. CHP is also targeting Istanbul, whose loss would be a huge blow for Erdogan.