ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – Turks were voting Sunday in local elections that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes will strengthen his party’s hand in pushing for constitutional reforms.
Some 48 million people are voting to elect mayors and district administrators in 81 provinces. Voting was largely peaceful although a deadly gun battle between the families of two rivals vying for a village administrator post in southeast Turkey left one dead and 16 wounded, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
Opinion polls indicate Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party will secure most votes following tensions with the military-backed secularists that had long dominated politics.
Last year, Erdogan’s party narrowly escaped being disbanded on charges of challenging Turkey’s secular constitution.
The opposition has been trying to capitalize on rising unemployment and fallout from the global economic meltdown as well as allegations of corruption against Erdogan’s party that have forced two officials to step down. The party however, remains popular among Turks. It has provided stability following years of precarious coalition governments. The party, first elected in 2002, won general elections by a landslide in 2007 with more than 46 percent of the vote.
In the last municipal elections in 2004, the party won 12 of 16 of Turkey’s most important cities, including Ankara and Istanbul.
Its toughest challenge is likely to come from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party which has a strong showing in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish southeast and is seeking to maintain dominance in the region. The party currently holds the region’s largest city, Diyarbakir.
A victory for Erdogan’s party will embolden him to push for new reforms to help the country’s European Union membership bid. Erdogan has said he will seek amendments to the constitution that is a legacy of the 1980 military coup, making it more difficult for example to shut down political parties.
Turkey is also engaged in talks with the IMF over loans to help overcome economic turmoil. The government has denied that it has stalled the talks to avoid IMF-demanded curbs on municipal spending before Sunday’s vote.