March 31, 2014

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Despite allegations of corruption and concerns about authoritarianism, Turkey’s local elections have given Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan momentum that could see him start a campaign to become the country’s first directly elected president.

Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party swept municipal elections on Sunday, gaining 45.5 percent of the votes and roundly beating the main opposition party, according to unofficial results. The party retained the key city of Istanbul and was also leading in Ankara, but votes in the capital were close and the opposition said the results would be contested.

Erdogan’s win eased market concerns over instability on Monday, leading to a stock market rally. The Turkish lira strengthened against the dollar and the euro. Analysts say the result amounts to a vote of confidence for Erdogan and will encourage him to run in presidential elections in August, where he would have to win 50 percent of the votes.

“(Erdogan) has seen that he has the support of a mass of people that believes in him and won’t desert him under any condition,” wrote Mehmet Tezcan, a commentator for Milliyet newspaper. “This will encourage him on his way to the presidential palace.”

Erdogan’s presidential aspirations had been put in doubt after last year’s anti-government protests, a corruption scandal and a series of freedom-restricting moves, including blocking access to Twitter and YouTube. The curbs on social media came after several audio recordings were leaked, suggesting corruption by Erdogan and family members.

Erdogan and his party have dominated Turkish politics over the past decade in a period of great prosperity. The party came to power backed by a pious Muslim base looking for greater standing in a country that had for decades favored a secular elite.

The allegations of corruption and bribe-taking have already brought down four ministers. Erdogan has rejected the allegations as a plot orchestrated by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally who has split with him. Following the results, Erdogan promised retribution against Gulen’s movement.

There were scattered reports of fraud, including irregular electoral lists and pre-stamped ballot papers, which were likely to delay an official announcement on the final results. Mustafa Sarigul, the opposition party’s candidate who lost his bid to become the mayor of Istanbul, complained of power cuts during vote tallies and “sacks of ballot papers wandering around.”

Turkey’s Kurdish Party, which is involved in peace talks with Erdogan’s government to try to end nearly three decades of fighting between troops and Kurdish insurgents, also made gains in the local elections, increasing the number of cities it won in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast regions from eight to 10, according to unofficial results.