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Combative Erdoğan returns from three-day campaign trail absence

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared in public for the first time in three days on Saturday after a stomach infection kept him off the campaign trail before key elections, Agence France-Presse reported.

Smiling and dressed in a red windbreaker, the 69-year-old leader walked out on the stage of an Istanbul aviation festival and tossed out flowers to flag-waving supporters.

He arrived together with his close ally, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and Libyan Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah.

Both countries have fought wars using Turkey’s combat drones, which will feature prominently at the weekend aviation event.

Erdoğan had been lying low since getting sick on live television on Tuesday night.

Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has said Erdoğan is suffering from gastroenteritis. The digestive problem is easily treated and usually clears up in a few days.

But it has disrupted Erdoğan’s attempts to seize momentum in the run-up to Turkey’s most important election in generations on May 14.

Erdoğan looked healthy addressing the crowd with a microphone in his hand, describing government efforts to help the victims of massive February earthquakes that claimed more than 50,000 lives.

But he refrained from addressing his absence or the health scare, instead proclaiming the launch of a new “century of Turkey.”

‘Hatred and Grudges’

Erdoğan’s illness came at one of the more vulnerable moments of his two-decade rule.

Most polls show Erdoğan slightly behind his secular rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Turkey’s most pivotal election of modern times.

His Islamic-rooted party’s control of parliament through an alliance with an ultranationalist group is also under threat.

Erdoğan has a penchant for campaigning, and most analysts thought he could reverse the dip in polls on the campaign trail.

He appeared in five cities over two days before getting sick on late-night TV.

Erdoğan tried to compensate by appearing at events by video link, launching a nuclear power plant with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Thursday and inaugurating a bridge the next day.

But the events lacked the electric atmosphere that Erdoğan often generates when he speaks to adoring crowds at events aired live across the nation of 85 million people.

The rock concert atmosphere of his past campaigns has also been muted by mourning over the death and destruction wrought by two powerful earthquakes across swaths of Turkey’s southeast.

Erdoğan has decided against playing music at his appearances out of respect for the victims.

Broad Opposition

He has instead focused on listing his achievements, including the construction of millions of new houses, and his push to resurrect Turkey’s military might.

The drones have played a central role in Turkey’s projection of power, most recently helping Ukraine fend of Russia’s advance on Kyiv at the start of the Kremlin’s invasion last year.

But Erdoğan is facing the toughest challenge of his rule.

Kılıçdaroğlu has formed the type of broad-based coalition that Erdoğan had mastered in crafting over 20 years.

The opposition alliance includes some of Erdoğan’s former allies, liberals, Islamists and nationalists as well as Kurds.

Erdoğan returned to his preferred theme on Saturday of portraying opposition members as Western “agents” bent on undermining Turkey.

“With the scandalous statements they have made in recent days, they are revealing their hatred and grudges,” Erdoğan said of his opponents.

“But no matter what they try to do, nothing will come of it.”

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