- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

ANKARA, TURKEY (AP) - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented party emerged as the leading party in Turkey’s local elections Sunday but, with three-quarters of the votes counted, saw a slide in its support compared with a landslide victory two years ago.

The ruling Justice and Development Party was leading the voting with 39 percent _ down from 46 percent in general elections in 2007. Nevertheless, it appeared to have won most of the mayoral and district administrator posts up for grabs, giving it a renewed mandate to push for constitutional reforms.

“We have received the message of the public,” Erdogan told a news conference. “We will take our lessons, do our homework and continue our road with more energy.”

The elections were marred by the deaths of at least six people in outbreaks of fighting between rival political groups across Turkey, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Dozens of people were wounded. Erdogan, meanwhile, rejected allegations of fraud by opposition parties amid reports of computer mishaps and missing ballot boxes.

The slide in the ruling party’s votes comes amid 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.



Its closest rival, the secular Republican People’s Party trailed with 20 percent. The Nationalist Action Party was third with 17 percent, the state-run TRT television said.

A pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party, swept the voting in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the country’s Kurdish-dominated southeast, despite the government’s efforts to win the hearts of Kurds by launching a Kurdish language television channel.

In the last local elections in 2004, Erdogan’s party won 12 of 16 of Turkey’s most important cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. On Sunday, it was narrowly retaining its grip on both cities with 75 percent of the votes counted.

The ruling party’s lead in local elections could embolden Erdogan to push for new reforms to help the country’s European Union membership bid. He particularly wants amendments to the constitution, a legacy of the 1980 military coup, that would make it more difficult to shut down political parties.

After the elections, the government is expected to press ahead with talks with the International Monetary Fund for a loan agreement to help overcome economic turmoil. It has denied that it has stalled talks to avoid IMF-demanded curbs on municipal spending before Sunday’s vote.

The turnout was not immediately available. Some 48 million people were eligible to vote. Voting is compulsory in Turkey.

___

Associated Press Writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.

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