Erdogan says Turkish vote will bolster him in power struggle
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said today's bitterly contested local elections would affirm his legitimacy in battling graft allegations and security leaks he blames on "traitors" within the Turkish state.
The municipal elections have become a crisis referendum on Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party after weeks of scandal he has cast as a "dirty campaign" of espionage to implicate him in corruption and topple him after more than a decade in power.
Early results broadcast on Turkish television, with less than a fifth of votes counted, put the AKP ahead with between 44 and 48 percent of the vote. AKP needs to exceed its 2009 result of 38.8 percent to assert Erdogan's authority for a power struggle certain to continue after the polls.
Istanbul and Ankara, the two biggest cities, are expected to be particularly close. Two buses of riot police stood ready in Istanbul's plush Nisantasi neighbourhood, one of several districts rocked by anti-government protests last summer.
"Once the ballot boxes are opened, the rest is only footnotes to history," Erdogan said as he voted in Istanbul.
"Today it is what the people say which matters rather than what was said in the city squares," he told reporters, as supporters chanted "Turkey is proud of you" outside.
Erdogan has purged thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors since anti-graft raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers. He blames the raids on US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, an ex-ally who he says is using supporters in the police to try to topple the government.
"They are all traitors," Erdogan said of his opponents at a rally in Istanbul on the eve of the vote. "Let them do what they want. Go to the ballot box tomorrow and teach all of them a lesson ... Let's give them an Ottoman slap."
Voting passed off peacefully in most parts of the country, although clashes over local council positions killed eight in two separate shoot-outs in villages in the southeastern provinces of Hatay and Sanliurfa near the Syrian border.
Erdogan has crisscrossed the nation of 77 million during weeks of hectic campaigning to rally his conservative core voters, in a measure of how seriously he takes his party's first test at the ballot box since last summer's protests across the country and the eruption of the corruption scandal in December.
The level of support will be crucial for the future cohesion of his party - giving a measure of the effect, if any, the graft scandal has had on his popularity - and will influence his own decision on whether to run for the presidency in August.
A vote of less than 36 percent, considered unlikely, would be a huge blow for Erdogan and unleash AKP power struggles. A vote above 45 percent, some fear, could feed his authoritarian instincts, which have already seen bans on Twitter and YouTube in recent days, and herald a period of harsh reckoning with opponents in politics and state bodies.