ANKARA - - Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party took a strong early lead in local elections Sunday, TV channels reported, despite turbulent months marked by mass protests, corruption scandals and Internet blocks.
If the initial trend holds up, it would considerably brighten the outlook for Erdogan , who had gone on a weeks-long campaign marathon ahead of the vote widely seen as a referendum on his 11-year-rule.
With over 18 percent of the municipal votes nationwide counted by early evening, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was at almost 50 percent of the vote, the private NTV television reported.
CNN-Turk said the AKP looked to have scored around 48 percent of the votes cast nationwide, based on more than 10 percent of the ballots counted, and was ahead in megacity Istanbul and the capital Ankara.
Erdogan has been eyeing a run for the presidency in August — the first time voters will directly elect the head of state — or may ask his party to change rules and allow him to seek a fourth term as premier.
Despite much criticism at home and abroad over what critics have labelled his increasingly authoritarian rule, Erdogan and his party , have drawn large crowds cheering the man sometimes dubbed “the sultan”.
Earlier Sunday, casting his own vote in Istanbul, Erdogan had voiced confidence in a victory, saying that “our people will tell the truth today... what the people say is what it is.”
Anticipating a poll triumph, a boisterous crowd of his flag-waving followers were watching TV coverage on a large screen outside AKP headquarters in Ankara, waiting for Erdogan to give a “balcony speech”.
- Months of turmoil -
Months of political turmoil — fought out in fierce street clashes and explosive Internet leaks — have left Turkey polarised between Erdogan’s Muslim conservative supporters and a secular political camp.
The premier’s heavy-handed response to being challenged on the streets and online has included a deadly police crackdown on protesters in Istanbul and blocks on Twitter and YouTube.
The clampdown has alienated NATO allies and detracted from Erdogan’s much lauded record of driving an economic boom and transforming the country spanning Europe and Asia into an emerging global player.
“Our democracy must be strengthened and cleansed,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party as he cast his vote Sunday, vowing to build “a pleasant society”.
Two activists of the group Femen, which has backed the Gezi movement and protested the Twitter ban, were arrested after staging a bare-breasted protest with the words “Ban Erdogan” across their chests.
Erdogan’s government has been hit by damaging online leaks that started in December, with wide-ranging bribery and sleaze claims against Erdogan’s inner circle going viral in the youthful country.
Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, an influential US-based Muslim cleric, and his loyalists in the Turkish police and justice system, of being behind the leaks and plotting his downfall.
The spiralling crisis has sent down the Turkish lira and stock market and rattled investors’ faith in the Muslim democracy that has often been described as a model for post-Arab Spring countries.
If Erdogan’s party manages to sustain its early lead as the ballot count continues, it would suggest such troubles have been largely shrugged off by many of Turkey’s over 50 million eligible voters.