Embattled Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced a crucial popularity test yesterday, when more than 50 million eligible voters cast their ballots in local elections.
Hailed as the “sultan” by his followers and labeled a “dictator” by his foes, Erdogan has campaigned for weeks alongside mayoral candidates, turning the vote into a referendum on his 11-year-rule as widespread protests and corruption scandals besiege his administration.
The outcomes of the polls — especially in the megacity of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara — will impact Erdogan’s future as he eyes a run for the presidency in August, or changes to the rules of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) that would enable him to seek a fourth term as prime minister next year.
The polls opened first in eastern Turkey at 7am and opened in the west at 8am. More than 50 million voters were to cast their ballots for mayors and local assemblies at almost 200,000 polling stations, pitting Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party against secular, nationalist and other groups. To ensure the vote runs smoothly, authorities have delayed Turkey’s switch to summer time by one day.
The past 10 months have spelled crisis for Erdogan, long hailed at home and abroad for driving economic growth and turning the country spanning Europe and Asia into an emerging global player.
Yet the secular, urban middle class has been alienated since police harshly cracked down on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June last year, sparking weeks of street clashes that left eight people dead and thousands wounded.
The harsh response fueled a growing perception of Erdogan as an autocratic leader seeking “one-man rule,” while falling out with former allies, especially influential Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, now the prime minister’s declared archenemy.
Erdogan has accused the 73-year-old US-based Imam and his loyalists in the Turkish police force and justice system of being behind a spate of wiretaps and social media leaks portending to expose graft and high-level security talks weighing military action in Syria.
Ankara’s response — especially blocking Twitter and YouTube in the past weeks — sparked a chorus of condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies and human rights groups.
Despite Erdogan increasingly criticized as authoritarian, he still commands the loyalty of millions, as well as a rich campaign war chest and an incumbent’s grip on much of the national media, analysts say.
“Erdogan and the AKP have a large core base of support that will back him up no matter what,” said Brent Sasley, a Middle East expert at the University of Texas.
However, he added that “Erdogan’s grip has certainly been weakened ... a longer-term process that began with the Gezi protests.”
The spiraling crisis has sent the Turkish lira and stocks plummeting, rattling investors’ faith in the Muslim democracy long hailed as a model for post-Arab Spring countries.
With memories of riot police using tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets against demonstrators fresh in Turkish residents’ minds, people are nervous that unclear or contested vote results could again bring tensions to the boil.
“To put it very bluntly, what is going on in Turkey now is a power struggle of historic proportions, and it would be rather surprising if this power struggle ends smoothly and easily after the elections,” Finansbank chief economist Inan Demir said.