Voters in Turkey began casting ballots in Sunday’s municipal elections, which are seen as a barometer of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity amid a sharp economic downturn in the nation that straddles Europe and Asia.
More than 57 million eligible voters are making choices in 200,000 polling stations across the country to elect the mayors for 30 large metropolitan cities, 51 provincial capitals and 922 districts. They are also voting to elect local assembly representatives as well as tens of thousands of neighborhood or village administrators.
With the economy contracting following a currency crisis last year in which the lira lost more than 30 percent of its value, some voters appeared ready to punish Erdogan, who has ruled with an increasingly uncompromising stance.
“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.
Voting started at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in eastern Turkey and an hour later in the rest of the country. Polling stations close at 4 p.m. in the east and 5 p.m. in the west.
Erdogan’s past electoral successes have been based on economic prosperity, but with a weakening currency, inflation at double-digit figures and food prices soaring, his conservative ruling party could lose control of key mayoral seats.
The municipal elections are also a first test for Erdogan since he won elections last year that ushered in a new system that gave him wide powers.
Opposition parties are mostly coordinating strategies and running under alliances in an effort to maximize the chances to unseat ruling party officials.
The main battleground appears to be for Ankara, the capital, where opinion polls have suggested that Mansur Yavas, an opposition alliance candidate, could upset a quarter of a century rule by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and its predecessor. Mehmet Ozhaseki, former minister of environment and urban planning, who is running on the ticket for Erdogan and his nationalist allies.
In Istanbul, Erdogan named former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who also served previously as transport minister, to run against Ekrem Imamoglu from the opposition.
“Whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey,” Erdogan has said in election rallies. His rise to power began as Istanbul mayor in 1994.
Erdogan has campaigned tirelessly for his party’s candidates, portraying the country’s economic woes as an attack by enemies at home and abroad, and has framed the race a matter of “national survival.” On Saturday, he spoke at six rallies in Istanbul, which Turkish television stations broadcast live.
Erdogan has been using fiercely polarizing rhetoric against opposition candidates. The ruling party has accused Ankara mayoral candidate Yavas of forgery and tax evasion while also threatening to depose mayors from a pro-Kurdish party -the second largest opposition in parliament- if they win seats in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Since 2016, Erdogan’s government has replaced elected mayors in about 100 municipalities held by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, replacing them with government-appointed trustees and claiming the ousted officials had alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants.
The pro-Kurdish party aims to win back those seats. It is also strategically sitting out critical races in Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, with the aim of sending votes to their secular opposition rival to help challenge Erdogan’s party.
Since the previous local elections in 2014, Turkish citizens have gone to the polls in five different elections. In last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan garnered 52.6 percent of the votes and his party and its nationalist ally won 53.7 percent of the parliamentary vote.
Defeat in Ankara or Istanbul would end nearly a quarter of a century of rule by Erdogan’s AKP or its predecessors in those cities and deal a symbolic blow to Turkey’s leader.
The pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), which Erdogan has accused of links to Kurdish militants, has not made an official alliance and is not fielding candidates for mayor in Istanbul or Ankara, which is likely to benefit the CHP.
The HDP denies links to the outlawed militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Two years ago, the state took control of some 100 municipalities from the pro-Kurdish party and some voters in the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir said services there had improved as a result.
“Before, this city did not have the services I have now seen. I gave my vote to the AK Party for services to continue,” said tradesman Haci Ahmet Beyaz, 43.
In the days leading up to the vote, Erdogan held around 100 rallies across the country, speaking 14 times in different districts of Istanbul over the past two days alone and more than four times in Ankara throughout his campaign.
He has described the elections as an existential choice for Turkey, blasting his rivals as terrorist supporters aiming to topple the country. He has warned that if the opposition candidate wins in Ankara, residents would “pay a price”.
His opponents have denied the accusations and challenged his characterization of the elections as a matter of survival, saying Erdogan had led the country to its current state.
“What 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.
With reference to Erdogan, Kilicdaroglu said: “If there is a survival issue in Turkey, it’s because of you.”