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Turkey's Ruling Party Set to Win Municipal Elections - 2004-03-28

In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party is widely expected to sweep nationwide municipal elections underway today. The party, formed by a group of former Islamists, is widely credited with accelerating Turkey's decades-long drive to become the European Union's first predominantly Muslim member. Voters are casting ballots for some 9,300 candidates seeking election as mayors and local councilors in 81 Turkish provinces. There were sporadic clashes Saturday between supporters of rival parties, in which one person was killed and at least 10 others were injured. But Sunday's polling has remained largely unmarred by violence so far.

The latest opinion polls show that the Justice and Development party, or AKP, is set to gain nearly half of the vote. The conservative group, formed by former Islamists, swept to power in nationwide parliamentary polls in November 2002. The AKP's closest rival, the pro-secular Republican People's Party, is trailing well behind, with about 20 percent of the vote.

The AKP is expected to hold onto the mayors' offices of the Turkish capital, Ankara, and the country's largest city, Istanbul. The AKP is not likely, however, to capture the port city of Izmir, Turkey's third largest, where left-wing and pro-secular parties traditionally win.

The group faces a further challenge in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, where Turkey's largest pro-Kurdish group that is running under the banner of an alliance of left-wing parties is widely expected to sweep the polls.

One of the main reasons the AKP is expected to do so well elsewhere is that municipalities under its control have performed very well, improving services, and unlike its pro-secular rivals, focusing on the needs of the urban poor. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan built his reputation as the mayor of Istanbul. His achievements included bringing water to the once drought-stricken city of 10 million people.