Turkish local elections will test Erdogan's standing

ANKARA, March 29, 2009 (AFP) - Turks went to polls on Sunday in local elections seen as a test of popularity for the Islamist-rooted ruling party which is battling a severe economic downturn after narrowly escaping being banned last year.

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul casts his vote, accompanied by his wife Hayrunnisa Gul, during municipal elections at a voting centre in Ankara on March 29 (AFP Photo)

Recent polls predict Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) will win Sunday's race, garnering at least 40 percent of the vote, with a large lead over its main rivals, the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party.

Even though the run-up to the election was largely eventless, a man was shot dead and 12 others were wounded Sunday in a small village in the mainly Kurdish southeastern province of Sanliurfa as supporters of rival candidates for village headman attacked each other, security sources said.

A similar incident in Suruc town, also in Sanliurfa, left 15 people wounded.

Some 48 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday's race to elect about 93,000 local representatives in the country's 81 provinces. Polling stations are due to close at 1500 GMT and first estimated results are expected from 1800 GMT.

The AKP is expected to retain control of the country's biggest city Istanbul and the capital Ankara, but fail in its bid to wrest key cities from the opposition, such as the western city of Izmir, a bastion of the CHP, and Diyarbakir, the the regional capital of the southeast.

Observers are closely watching the size of the AKP's victory as an indicator of what the government plans to do on pressing issues such as the worsening economy and troubled talks with the European Union.

If the party manages to get close to the 46.6 percent it garnered in the 2007 general elections, it will have fresh energy to focus on EU-related reforms and finalize a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund, Wolfango Piccoli from Eurasia group, a political risk consultancy firm in London, said in a note to investors.

Markets and business circles have been pressing the government since last year to sign a fresh loan agreement with the IMF, but the AKP has held out on such a deal whose belt-tightening measures may not go down well with the public.

Economic indicators, meanwhile, have been sounding alarm bells: unemployment hit a record high of 13.6 percent in December and industrial output slumped by 21.3 percent in January.

If the AKP gets more than 50 percent of the vote, it could become emboldened to pass controversial reforms that raise the risk of a confrontation with hardcore secularist opponents that suspect the party of having a hidden Islamist agenda, Piccoli underlined.

"A triumphal AKP may give in to the temptation to indulge its more ideological impulses and reward its hard-core Islamist base for its strong support in the election," he said.

Erdogan was forced to call early general elections in 2007 after a bitter struggle with secularists suspicious of the party's choice of a former Islamist for president.

Once the party secured its position, it tried to amend the constitution to allow university students to wear headscarves on campus, a move bitterly opposed by the secularist camp.

That resulted in a bid to ban the party, but the constitutional court chose to punish the AKP with financial sanctions instead of closing it down.

Erdogan has already said that after the local polls, his government plans to start work on a package of constitutional amendments, and the affair could prove potentially dangerous depending on what the AKP chooses to amend.

In the least likely scenario, the AKP would get less than 40 percent of the votes, forcing the party to opt for populist policies to boost its image, decreasing the chances of an IMF deal and renewed reforms to ease Turkey's entry into the block.

"The opposition would call for early general elections claiming that the ruling party has lost much of its legitimacy," Piccoli said.

Source: AFP

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