ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Over the past decade, Turks grew accustomed to the forceful tones of their prime minister on television, and things seemed oddly quiet when he vanished from public life for nearly a month after surgery.
Now he’s back.
On Tuesday, workaholic Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a full program, addressing party loyalists in parliament, meeting with the Tunisian foreign minister as well as the head of a European parliamentary assembly, holding a telephone conversation with Iraq’s prime minister and delivering a speech at a local administrators’ conference.
In between, the prime minister called in the journalists who cover him for an impromptu chat and imparted some information about his health.
“Thank God, it is getting better every day,” he said. “God willing, our (work) intensity will resume in mid-February or in the beginning of March.”
On Nov. 26, Erdogan, 57, underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove what a physician later said were non-cancerous intestinal polyps, disappearing from public life for weeks. The surgery was kept secret from the public and his aides remained tightlipped for days.
It took the normally tireless prime minister three weeks to return to work and even then, details of his schedule were scant, leaving many Turks wondering about his health.
The potential implications of any health issue are big since Erdogan, 57, has loomed large over this mostly Muslim NATO ally. Under his leadership in the past decade, Turkey has boosted economic growth, raised its international profile and has become a source of inspiration for some regional activists who have helped oust autocratic leaders through popular uprisings.
Erdogan, who spearheads Turkey’s blend of religious piety and democratic politics, leads with a tight grip and there are questions about whether his party would weaken without him, and whether the country would pursue the same assertive, often brash foreign policy.
Erdogan has set ambitious longterm goals for when Turkey celebrates the centenary of the republic in 2023, including making the country an influential regional actor, one of the top 10 economies of the world and a member of the European Union. The EU bid, however, is stalled for now.
President Abdullah Gul, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister who is credited for the economic boom, are respected figures, but lack the depth of Erdogan’s popular appeal.
Journalists knew something was up on Nov. 28 when nothing showed on Erdogan’s daily schedule.
“There had been one or two occasions when the prime minister had nothing scheduled for the weekend and spent time with his grandchildren,” said journalist Ercan Gurses, who covers Erdogan for NTV television. “But we got suspicious that something was wrong when there was nothing on his agenda for a Monday also — not a single meeting, not one opening.”
A brief statement two days after Erdogan disappeared stated that he had undergone “successful” abdominal surgery on his digestive system. But that only fueled speculation that he had cancer, prompting hospital officials to make a more detailed statement a week later.
Dr. Mehmet Fuzun, dean of a university hospital that operated on Erdogan told the Dogan news agency that the prime minister had a three-hour surgery to remove polyps in his intestine and that a biopsy revealed that they were not cancerous. Fuzun said between 20 and 25 centimeters (8 to 10 inches) of his intestines were removed.
“If we hadn’t removed them, perhaps in three or five years time, they could have turned into a serious illness,” the agency quoted him as saying.
On Tuesday, Erdogan told journalists that he liked to spend weekends in Istanbul, rather than in the capital Ankara, because “that’s where my doctors are.” A close aide told The Associated Press that Erdogan was already working “until 11 pm” and would resume foreign visits in March. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules.
In one of his first appearances after returning to work, Erdogan admitted that he had lost four kilograms (about 9 pounds) after the surgery.
In 2006, Erdogan was admitted to the hospital after fainting in his car and being locked inside the armored vehicle when its automatic locking system was accidentally activated by panicked bodyguards. Doctors said at the time his conditions was caused by a combination of intense work and fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Erdogan is taking up his robust schedule in the same week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has resumed his weekly television and radio program after a hiatus of seven months due to cancer treatment. The 57-year-old president had a tumor removed from his pelvic region in June and underwent four rounds of chemotherapy from July to September in both Cuba and Venezuela. He has said he is now cancer-free, although he hasn’t revealed what type of cancer he had.
This week, doctors announced that Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez, who had surgery for thyroid cancer, didn’t have cancer after all.