Turkish vote tests Erdogan’s mandate

Turkey's local elections are widely seen as a referendum on it's prime minister's power struggle with the secular establishment.
Turkey was Sunday voting in local elections widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Rece Tayyip Erdogan, whose challenges the country’s strict secular system have pitted him against the military and judiciary.

Polls show Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, in power since 2002, is once again likely to win more than 40 percent of votes in the mainly Muslim country. More than 90,000 positions are up for grabs, from the mayor of Turkey’s largest city Istanbul to the headman of the smallest village. On the campaign trail, Erdogan touted the solid economic growth Turkey enjoyed during his first six years in power. That record has slipped recently, with unemployment reaching a record high in January, as Turkey was buffeted by the global economic crisis. Critics argue Erdogan, who was nearly barred from politics over attempts to relax Turkey’s secular rules, has not followed through on promises to advance reforms to get Turkey into the European Union. Watch profile of Erdogan » “This is a warning vote against the governing party,” said bookseller Istiklal Kozan, as he left a polling station in Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighborhood. Kozan said he was frustrated with the AK Party’s lack of progress in negotiations to join the EU. Erdogan’s government has been embroiled in a power struggle with Turkey’s secular establishment, which includes the military and the judiciary. “There has been an intensive struggle for Turkish democracy,” Erdogan was quoted Sunday by the Dogan News Agency as saying while casting his ballot in Istanbul. “Our nation’s choice will emerge from this struggle.”

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In the run up to Sunday’s vote, competition was fierce in some key cities where the AK Party has tried to capture positions from Turkey’s splintered opposition groups. Small clashes broke out last week in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, between AK Party supporters and followers of a Kurdish nationalist party known as the PKK. Meanwhile, political parties suspended campaign rallies after a helicopter crashed in the snowy mountains of Eastern Anatolia on Wednesday, killing Muhsin Yazicioglu, the head of the fringe Great Union Party (BBP) and five other passengers.

Turkey imposes tight restrictions during elections. The sale of alcohol is banned across the country on election day. Gun-owners are also forbidden from carrying firearms. That did not prevent a fatal shooting from taking place Sunday morning in southeastern Turkey. The official Anatolian Agency reports a candidate for muhtar in the village of Bezirci was killed after a fight broke out with a rival candidate. At least 16 other people were wounded as rival supporters clashed with stones, sticks and firearms.