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Turkey's Erdogan cancels election appearances after falling ill

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week there was a flurry of concern over the health of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It came as he seeks a new term for an election on May 14. It's another setback for a leader whose grip on power had seemed unshakeable. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: During a live interview Tuesday with a Turkish television channel, the reporter finished asking his question and waited for Erdogan to respond - and kept waiting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASAN OZTURK: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: As Erdogan struggled to speak, his aides rushed in, and the interview was abruptly halted. Not long after, CGTN, a Chinese news outlet, tweeted that Erdogan had suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Turkey's health minister, Dr. Fahrettin Koca, denied that, saying Erdogan was suffering from a gastroenteritis infection. The president returned to the studio to finish that interview, but then canceled all his campaign events Wednesday. He was scheduled to attend the inauguration of Turkey's first nuclear power plant on Thursday, but dropped plans to attend in person, addressing the event by teleconference from Ankara.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Erdogan appeared pale and tired as he spoke about Turkey finally getting the nuclear plant operational with Russia's help. Officials rushed to reassure the public that the president was on the mend. Yesterday Health Minister Koca said, quote, "I was with him this morning. His health is fine," adding that the effect of his gastrointestinal infection has decreased and that Erdogan would resume his schedule.

The 69-year-old Erdogan has dominated Turkey's politics for more than two decades, reshaping the government to consolidate power. He had been maintaining a demanding daily schedule of campaign events. His opponent, 74-year-old Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has also been crisscrossing Turkey, trying to convince voters that it's time for a post-Erdogan era in Turkish politics, but he and the six-party coalition he represents have both wished Erdogan a quick recovery.

Erdogan's reelection challenges have included widespread public anger at what critics called the government's sluggish response to the earthquake and major aftershocks that hit in February, killing tens of thousands of people. And even before that, the country was mired in an economic crisis. Now, he also needs to convince voters he's healthy enough to serve another five-year term. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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