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Clashes in Turkey as Erdogan faces key test in local polls

© Photo: AFP

Video by Shirli SITBON

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-30

Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan, embattled by protests and corruption scandals, faced a key popularity test as polls opened for local elections on Sunday. At least six people were killed as groups backing rival candidates clashed in Turkey's provinces.

Hailed as the "sultan" by his loyal followers and labelled a "dictator" by his bitter foes, Erdogan has campaigned for weeks alongside mayoral candidates, turning the vote into a referendum on his 11-year-long rule.

The outcome – especially in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara – will impact his future as he eyes a run for the presidency in August, or changes party rules to allow him to seek a fourth term as prime minister next year.

Six people were killed in clashes between groups backing rival candidates in Turkey’s provinces, security sources said. Four people were killed in a shootout between two families in the village of Yuvacik in Sanliurfa province and two people died in a gun battle between relatives of two of the candidates running in Hatay province’s Golbasi village.

More than 50 million voters were to cast their ballots for mayors and local assemblies at almost 200,000 pollings stations, pitting Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) against secular, nationalist and other groups.

The past 10 months have spelled crisis for Erdogan, a leader long hailed at home and abroad for driving economic growth and turning the country spanning Europe and Asia into an emerging global player.

But the secular urban middle-class has been alienated since police harshly cracked down on protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park last June, sparking off weeks of street clashes that left eight people dead and thousands wounded.

That was followed by graft allegations and a stream of damaging security leaks Erdogan has blamed on “traitors” embedded in the Turkish state.

Erdogan has purged some 7,000 people from the judiciary and police since anti-graft raids in December targeted businessmen close to Erdogan and sons of ministers.

He blames the probe on Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally, who he says is using supporters in the police to try to topple the government.

‘They are all traitors’

Erdogan also accuses Gulen of being behind a spate of wiretaps and social media leaks exposing graft and high-level security talks weighing military action in Syria.

The government's response – especially blocking Twitter and YouTube in the past two weeks – has sparked a chorus of condemnation from Turkey's NATO allies and human rights groups.

“They are all traitors,” Erdogan said of his opponents at a rally in Istanbul on Saturday.

“Let them do what they want. Go to the ballot box tomorrow and teach all of them a lesson ... Let’s give them an Ottoman slap.”

AK’s chief opponent, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), portrays Erdogan as a corrupt dictator ready to hang on to power by any means. Capture of the capital Ankara or Istanbul would allow them to claim some form of victory.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister still enjoys strong support from a loyal core of voters, and the AKP hopes on Sunday to equal or better its overall 2009 vote of 38.8 percent.

A vote of less than 36 percent, not considered likely, would be a huge blow for Erdogan and unleash AKP power struggles.

But a vote of more than 45 percent, some fear, could herald a period of harsh reckoning with opponents in politics and state bodies.

"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," Inan Demir, chief economist at Turkey's Finansbank, said.

"If anything, political tensions might escalate even further ahead of presidential elections in August."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-03-30

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