Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned 65 yesterday, an occasion he marked on the campaign trail for the upcoming municipal elections. The "Tall Man" or "Reis" (chief in Turkish), as his supporters call him, is still the most popular leader almost two decades after ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power.
His youthful look may have faded but the former footballer who made his foray into politics while in high school show little sign of fatigue, cramming at least two rallies in two different cities as part of his campaign schedule ahead of March's elections. AK Party still dominates the election polls while Erdoğan himself is highly popular among voters at the peak of his political career. His rallies draw huge crowds and he is mobbed by fans at every public occasion. The president's sincere and warm dialogue with citizens and house visits endeared Erdoğan to many people and cemented his reputation as a "man of the people" in Turkish politics. His embrace by the public particularly stands out in Turkey which was once dominated by politicians keeping their distance from the public.
Erdoğan is known for his aversion to birthday bashes but his supporters flooded social media with birthday messages for the president. A group of fans presented a birthday cake to Erdoğan as he left his residence in Istanbul to fly to northern Turkey for rallies yesterday. The president served the cake to media crews and his bodyguards and made a brief statement. "I am now 65 in my adventure in this lifetime. I tried to serve my nation and humanity in politics. I will continue to serve my country as long as Allah lets me live and will walk with my nation on this path," the president said. A group of celebrities also held a surprise birthday celebration event for Erdoğan at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport before the president boarded his plane. Foreign leaders also congratulated Erdoğan on his birthday. Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned the president on the occasion of his birthday while Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic sent a congratulatory message to Erdoğan. The president, who became known to the larger population when he was elected as Istanbul mayor in 1994, has come a long way from his days in office in the most populated city of the country. A prison term on politically motivated charges during his tenure as mayor was thought to have ended his political career, but Erdoğan surprised his opponents with a landmark victory for the AK Party in 2002. Since then, the AK Party emerged victorious at every election, while Erdoğan, who started off as prime minister in the 2003 government, was elected president in 2014.