Turks began voting on Sunday in municipal elections likely to give Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party a fresh mandate to press on with political and economic reforms in the European Union candidate.
Voters in the predominantly Muslim country of 72 million people elect mayors and municipal and provincial assemblies, but the vote is seen more as a referendum on the popular Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted AK Party has won three straight elections since it first crushed the secularist opposition in 2002.
Most opinion polls show the AK Party winning with ease with about 40 per cent of the vote despite record unemployment and a worsening economy hit by the global economic crisis after years of unprecedented domestic growth and record foreign investment.
Erdogan has pledged to reform the 1982 military-drafted constitution and change the way the Constitutional Court works, steps which would remove some obstacles to EU membership but threaten to revive tensions with secularists who accuse him of pursuing an Islamist agenda. Erdogan denies this.
The AK Party, rooted in political Islam but also embracing nationalists and centre-right elements, was nearly closed down by the Constitutional Court for Islamist activities in a 2008 case that rattled financial markets and deeply polarised Turkey.
The IMF and Turkey have been in talks for months on a deal markets say is key to shielding the US$750 billion economy from the global crisis. Markets expect Erdogan to complete those talks after Sunday’s vote.
A former Istanbul mayor, Erdogan is hoping to wrest the mainly Kurdish southeast from pro-Kurdish parties in what might prove a historic step towards solving a conflict weighing heavily on the country’s economic and political development.
In an interview on Friday, Erdogan said he would consider it a “failure” if his party won less in the provincial assemblies vote than the 47 per cent it won in a 2007 general vote.
Critics accuse Erdogan of having lost his reformist spirit since Turkey won EU accession talks in 2005 and say he is growing autocratic.
Turkey’s conservative establishment, including the military and the judiciary, is deeply suspicious of Erdogan, and a sharp fall in support for the AK Party would reinvigorate the weakened opposition.
A legal case into a shadowy organisation accused of plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government has put the military on the defensive, although the army denies any links to Ergenekon.
More than 140 people, including retired senior officers, face charges they planned to engineer an army coup to unseat Erdogan. The military has unseated four elected governments in the last 50 years. — Reuters