AFP - Turkey's Islamist-rooted ruling party appeared headed for victory Sunday in local elections marred by violence that were widely seen as a test of popularity for the party.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) had 41.3 percent of the vote after nearly 12 percent of ballots had been counted nationwide, according to partial results reported by Turkish television.
The main opposition Republican People's Party was second with 18.3 percent, followed by the Nationalist Action Party with 14.7 percent.
Voting was marked by clashes, mainly in the Kurdish-majority east and southeast of the country, that left four dead and more than 90 injured.
Gunfights in Sanliurfa and Kars provinces and near the city of Diyarbakir saw three people shot dead, local security forces said. One person was stabbed to death in Van province.
Ninety-three people sustained injuries in fighting spread over 10 provinces.
A candidate vying to run the administration of a suburb in Diyarbakir also died of a heart attack during an argument with voters.
Recent polls had predicted Erdogan's AKP would win Sunday's race despite the severe economic downturn gripping the country.
Some 48 million people were eligible to vote to elect about 93,000 local representatives in Turkey's 81 provinces.
The AKP is expected to retain control of Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, but fail in its bid to wrest key cities from the opposition.
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 it gets close to the 46.6 percent it garnered in the 2007 general election, it will have fresh energy to focus on priorities such as EU-related reforms and a deal with the International Monetary Fund, said Wolfango Piccoli of London-based political risk consultancy the Eurasia group.
The AKP has been holding out on an IMF deal, to the disappointment of markets, despite worsening economic indicators. 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 take controversial steps that raise the risk of a confrontation with secularist opponents which 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, which sparked a bid to ban the party.
The constitutional court ruled against banning the AKP, but punished it with financial sanctions for abusing religion.
Erdogan has already said that after local polls, his government will work on constitutional amendments, which risks new controversy.
In the least likely scenario, the AKP would get less than 40 percent of the votes, 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.