ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Cheers erupted from the packed stands when Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan scored his third goal in a celebrity football 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 need not resign as prime minister while campaigning for the presidency.
"The delegation ... noted that the prime minister is not required by the law to resign but also that the use of administrative resources is forbidden by the law," it said in a statement following its visit in July.
"This position gives him disproportionate access to resources and media coverage, in the absence of strict regulations. The issue of misuse of administrative resources was raised on several occasions during the meetings."
A spokesman for Erdogan's office said all election activities were in accordance with the law.
Turkey's electoral laws prohibit speeches and opening ceremonies for services and projects funded by the state and municipalities during the campaign period. They also impose some restrictions on using state vehicles during campaigning.
But Erdogan's candidacy was announced some three weeks before the official start of campaigning on July 31. During that period he frequently addressed rallies around the country, criticising his opponents and trumpeting his successes.
"The taxes we as citizens pay are meant to be spent for the public's benefit. The politician cannot spend it for his own benefit," said Sami Selcuk, a law academic and former head of Court of Appeals. "Using the prime minister's plane for campaigning obviously is against certain ethical values."
Turkey is in uncharted waters in holding a popular vote for the presidency for the first time. Heads of state have in the past been chosen by parliament, meaning such questions of campaign financing have not arisen in the same way before.
A typical election campaign would cost close to 50 million lira (£13.9 million), much of it spent on TV and print advertising as well as rallies, Gokhan Sen, head of campaign marketing firm Proje Yapim, told the Hurriyet newspaper recently.
In more than a decade under Erdogan's rule, Turkey has seen a period of growth and the emergence of a new business elite, conservative and loyal to Erdogan.
This business network and its access to private funds have added to Erdogan’s head start, creating an imbalance of campaign funding, his rivals say. Erdogan has declined to comment on the funding of his campaign.
Demirtas, who is polling a distant third in the presidential race, said he had collected some 600,000 lira in campaign donations, while Ihsanoglu said he raised more than 2 million as of last week. Erdogan's office did not provide a figure for the prime minister's campaign war chest.
The rival candidates complained about Erdogan's domination of the Turkish media, which is largely owned by conglomerates with business ties to the prime minister's AK Party, and which has fallen in global press freedom rankings in recent years.
Turkey fell to 154th out of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, compared with 116th in 2003 when the AK Party first came to power.
Mainstream Turkish media came under fire from government critics last summer for broadcasting Erdogan's speeches live and failing, initially at least, to cover anti-government demonstrations that were erupting around the country.
"In 12 years, the AK Party has got more and more expert about how to censor the press, how to spread fear amongst the media," said Esra Arsan, a journalism professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. "Practice is making censorship perfect."
(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Janet McBride)