Istanbul: Cheers erupted from the packed stands when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan scored his third goal in a celebrity soccer match to mark the opening of an Istanbul stadium.
His orange jersey bore the number 12, a reminder of Erdogan's ambition to become the nation's 12th president in Turkey's first popular vote for its head of state, on Aug. 10.
After dominating Turkish politics for more than a decade, few doubt Erdogan will beat his main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a diplomat with little profile in domestic politics, or Selahattin Demirtas, a young Kurdish hopeful.
But Erdogan's opponents say it has been an unfair contest, a charge the prime minister dismisses. An Erdogan victory would concentrate more power in the hands of a man who has divided Turkish society along secular-religious lines and worried Turkey's western allies.
While his rivals have funded their rallies mainly from donations, Erdogan has turned his public appearances, some of them state-financed, into a show of strength, from the ground-breaking ceremony of Istanbul's third airport in June to the launch of a high-speed train line in late July.
He criss-crossed the country in the prime ministerial jet to address supporters, effectively beginning his campaign well before the July 31 start date set by the election board. Erdogan's spokesman said the prime minister had ceased using his official plane and car since the formal start of campaigning.
The election board last month rejected an appeal from the main opposition party CHP that Erdogan should resign as prime minister in order to run his presidential campaign. Erdogan points to the election campaigns run by Barack Obama and Angela Merkel while they remained in office.
"In my opinion, Erdogan is like an athlete permitted to use illegal steroids or drugs yet permitted to compete," said Cem Toker, head of Turkey's opposition Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) who has written extensively about Turkey's electoral system.
"His time in power, his popularity and his charismatic appeal give him a fair advantage as an incumbent. However, his use of state funds and resources without any discretion gives him a very unfair advantage," said Toker, whose party is backing Ihsanoglu.
Several European delegations that have visited Turkey to observe the campaign echoed Toker's concern.
"The campaign activities of the prime minister are large-scale events, often combined with official government events," said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors elections, in an interim report on July 31.
"While other candidates actively campaign, the public visibility of their campaigns is limited."
An OSCE delegation noted that children's toys and women's scarves were distributed to the crowd following a speech by Erdogan in the Black Sea coastal city of Ordu on July 19.
A spokesman for Erdogan's office said none of the premier's campaigning activities were in breach of the law.
"The bottom line is what the law says and there is nothing being done against the law here. He has stopped using his usual vehicle and plane since the formal start of campaigning," the spokesman said.
MEDIA AS VOTE WINNER
A delegation from the Council of Europe, which aims to promote human rights and democracy, told Turkey's broadcasting regulator RTUK in July that there should be a clear distinction between Erdogan's speeches as prime minister and those he delivered as a presidential candidate.
A report compiled at the request of an opposition board member at the regulator found that state broadcaster TRT devoted 533 minutes to Erdogan between July 4 and July 6. Over the same period it covered Ihsanoglu for three minutes and 24 seconds and allocated only 45 seconds to Demirtas, local media reported.
The Council of Europe pointed to possible worrying consequences from last month's ruling by the election board that Erdogan nee