File photo of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photograph:( Reuters )
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Bosnia on Sunday to hold his only election rally outside Turkey, while other EU countries have banned such events ahead of Ankara's presidential and parlimentary elections next month.
The capital Sarajevo was chosen for the event after countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands have barred Turkish politicians from holding such rallies, stoking tensions between Ankara and Brussels.
Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, with three million expatriate Turks allowed to vote, including 1.4 million in Germany.
Thousands of people, many wearing scarves and banners carrying pictures of the Turkish leader, and waving Turkish flags, converged on Sarajevo's largest sports venue, Zetra, where the rally was to be held.
And giant billboards welcomed Erdogan in Turkish and Bosnian.
Security was tight, with local media reporting that crowds of up to 20,000 were expected.
Rally for "Sultan Erdogan"
Despite the ban in other European countries, Bosnia had not been expected to stop Turkish politicians from campaigning on its soil, given the close ties between Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic and his SDA party and Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
According to Bosnian media, the AKP is planning to open a representative office in Bosnia soon.
"We will show that he (Erdogan) has friends and that there are those who are proud of him," Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, told his supporters last week.
The Turkish leader was not liked in the West and there were many "who do not like him in this country", because "he is a powerful Muslim leader that we have not had for a long time," Izetbegovic argued.
Nevertheless, support was not unanimous.
In an ironic front page article, the daily newspaper Vecernji list asked whether, after the rally for "Sultan" Erdogan, Sarajevo might not soon be welcoming Russian leader Vladimir Putin or even Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
We will die for him
"Why hold a rally in Bosnia rather than in Turkey. Of course, I mind," pensioner Spomenka Beus, 74, told AFP.
But, Muhamed Yanik, a 20-year-old student, said he had travelled 28 hours by bus from Germany to see Erdogan.
"If he says so, we will die for him," Yanik said.
But others, such as theatre director Dino Mustafic, felt Erdogan's visit harked back to the colonial times of the Ottoman Empire, when the Balkans, notably Bosnia, were ruled by the Ottomans for more than four centuries until 1878.
The event would be an occasion for "poor local people to euphorically applaud their sultan," he tweeted.
Bosnian Serb leader Milord Dodik accused the Turkish leader of "interfering" in Bosnia's affairs.
Turkey has excellent relations with Bosnia and Turkish companies have played a major role in the country's reconstruction following its 1990s inter-ethnic war.
Erdogan has called snap presidential and parliamentary elections for June 24, bringing the polls forward by a year-and a half.
Half of Bosnia's 3.5 million citizens are Muslims, a third are Serbs, while Croats make some 15 percent of the population.
The rally, the only one Erdogan will attend outside Turkey, is due to start around 3:00 pm (1300 GMT).
His supporters are expected to arrive from all over Europe, from Germany, Austria, Belgium, Scandinavia, the Netherlands Switzerland, Italy or Hungary.
The expatriate European vote is generally a source of support Erdogan's AKP and officials are keen to rouse a strong turnout in Europe.
The early election in Turkey is set to accelerate its transition to the new presidential system with full executive powers which critics fear will lead to a one-man rule.