ANKARA (REUTERS) - Turkey's main opposition party appeared on course to seize control of Ankara in Sunday's (March 31) local elections, defeating President Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party in the capital for the first time since he came to power 16 years ago.
With almost 90 per cent of votes counted, the mayoral candidate of the secularist opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Mansur Yavas, had secured 50.3 per cent, giving him a 2.8 percentage points lead over his AKP rival.
With the AK Party lead in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, also shrinking to a 0.2 percentage point margin, defeat in Ankara would be a major setback for Erdogan who campaigned relentlessly for two months ahead of the vote which he described as a "matter of survival" for Turkey.
"We have to accept the fact that we have won and lost some cities, this is a necessity in democracies," Erdogan said in Istanbul, pledging that Turkey would now focus on its troubled economy in the run up to national elections in 2023.
"We have a long period ahead where we will carry out economic reforms without compromising on the rules of the free market economy," he told reporters.
Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years, thanks mainly to strong economic growth and support from a core constituency of pious, conservative Muslim Turks.
A consummate campaigner, he has been the country's most popular - though also divisive - modern politician, tightening his hold on power in elections last year which ushered in a new executive presidency, approved in a bitterly fought 2017 referendum.
However, a currency crisis after last year's election dragged the lira down by 30 percent and tipped the economy towards recession. With inflation close to 20 per cent and unemployment rising, some voters appeared ready to punish the president.
"I was actually not going to vote today, but when I saw how much they (AKP) were flailing, I thought this might be time to land them a blow. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone is struggling," said 47-year-old Hakan after voting in Ankara.
As authorities again scrambled to shore up the lira over the last week, Erdogan cast the country's economic woes as resulting from attacks by the West, saying Turkey would overcome its troubles and adding he was "the boss" of the economy.
"The aim behind the increasing attacks towards our country ahead of the elections is to block the road of the big, strong Turkey," Erdogan told a rally in Istanbul on Saturday.
In Istanbul, AKP candidate and former prime minister Binali Yildirim had 48.8 per cent of votes, just 0.2 percentage points ahead of his CHP rival, after 98 per cent of ballot boxes were opened, broadcaster NTV said.
VIOLENCE MARS VOTING
The election was marred by violence in the southeast and Istanbul. Two members of the small Islamist Felicity Party, a polling station official and an election observer, were shot dead in Malatya province, a party spokesman said.
In the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir, two people were hurt, one of them critically, after being stabbed in a dispute between candidates, a hospital source said. Dozens of people were hurt in other election-related clashes in the southeast, media reported.
One person was stabbed as 15 people clashed in a row between candidates in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, a police source said.
Ahead of the vote, the CHP and Iyi (Good) Party formed an electoral alliance to rival that of the AKP and its nationalist MHP partners. The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdogan has accused of links to Kurdish militants, did not field candidates for mayor in Istanbul or Ankara, which was likely to benefit the CHP.
The HDP denies links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers' Party. Two years ago, the state took control of about 100 municipalities from an HDP-affiliated party and some voters in Diyarbakir said services there had improved as a result.
In the days leading up to the vote, Erdogan held around 100 rallies across the country. He blasted his rivals as terrorist supporters and warned that if the opposition candidate wins in Ankara, residents would "pay a price".
His opponents have denied the accusations and challenged his characterisation of the elections as a matter of survival. "We're electing mayors. What does this have to do with the country's survival?" Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the CHP, told a rally in Eskisehir.