Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his Justice and Development Party (AKP) the winner in Sunday’s local election, seen as a referendum on his government.
Preliminary results showed the conservative AKP had garnered 45.1 per cent of the overall vote, with more than 90 per cent of ballots counted, while the main rival Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 28.7 per cent, according to CNN Turk television.
In a speech to thousands of cheering supporters standing in the cold in Ankara, Erdogan lashed out at the opposition, labeling some as “traitors”. “Democracy has won, free will has won,” he told the crowd, speaking from a balcony and hailing a “meaningful result”. “The people have delivered a proper Ottoman slap to them,” he said, referring to opponents who held hopes of upsetting incumbents.
The two parties were neck and neck in the capital Ankara, while Istanbul appeared to be an AKP win.
The CHP, a centre-left party, claimed there had been incidents of fraud in some municipalities.
The elections took place with both Twitter and YouTube recently banned in the country and a corruption scandal hanging over the ruling party, but these did not seem to shake overall support for Erdogan’s party.
Presidential elections are due in August to be followed by parliamentary polls by early next year.
If the early results are declared official, it would mean the AKP has not lost an election since its founding in 2001.
Party supporters pointed to infrastructure development and economic stability as reasons why they support Mr. Erdogan, who campaigned heavily for the AKP across the country.
With Mr. Erdogan in many ways the face of the campaign — for both his supporters and detractors — the election is being seen as a key test of AKP’s popularity and mandate to govern.
Critics say Mr. Erdogan, who has been premier since 2003, has become increasingly authoritarian and has departed from an attitude of pluralism in recent years.
Voters supporting the CHP have also expressed apprehension over maintaining secularism in the country.
Mr. Erdogan has been supportive of Islamist movements in the Middle East since the Arab Spring began, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which was deposed last year.
The polarization of Turkey has picked up steam since mass anti-government protests erupted in Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul last year and were crushed by a heavy-handed police reaction.
Key AKP leaders were hit by bribery and graft charges in December and four ministers were forced to resign.
Since then a slew of leaked audio recordings have surfaced via social media accounts, charging that Mr. Erdogan and his allies are corrupt. The recordings cannot be independently verified.
While Mr. Erdogan has denied the graft allegations, he has admitted that some of the recordings are true, including one in which he reduces a news editor to tears and forces him to change a story.
In his victory speech, Mr. Erdogan promised those behind the leaks will be found and they will “pay the price”. The recordings pushed Mr. Erdogan to ban social media site Twitter and video sharing platform YouTube, further increasing his opponents’ concerns over a decline in democracy.
The ban on the sites also sparked strong reaction from Turkey’s partners in the NATO alliance, including the United States.
The AKP said it wanted to at least match its performance in the 2009 local elections and garner 38.8 per cent of the vote. In the last national election in 2011, the party received just shy of 50 per cent.
The Kurdish party BDP swept most areas in south-eastern Turkey, which has a Kurdish majority.
The country also saw the first woman who wears an Islamic headscarf elected to a mayoral seat.
Feminist protest group Femen briefly disrupted a polling station in a conservative area of Istanbul where Mr. Erdogan had voted.
President Abdullah Gul voted in Ankara and admitted that campaigning had been “rough”, referencing a very polarizing election cycle.
Some 52 million registered voters were eligible to elect mayors and other local officials for five-year terms, with six major parties participating. Voter turnout was said to be high.
In two incidents in rural southern and south-eastern Turkey, a total of eight people were killed and about 20 others were injured during disputes between rivals.
AKP party rules currently ban Mr. Erdogan from running for a fourth term as premier, fuelling speculation about whether he will seek to change the limits or run for president.