ISTANBUL — Turkey holds nationwide municipal elections on Sunday, March 30. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mired in corruption allegations, has made the polls a referendum on his rule. With such high stakes, the vote is being widely seen as one of the most important in the country’s history.
All of Turkey’s political leaders have been touring the country campaigning and addressing mass rallies. Asli Aydintasbas, a political commentator for the Turkish TV channel CNN Turk, says these local elections are unprecedented in Turkey.
"These really don’t feel like local elections; this is essentially a referendum about Erdogan. It has more the mood of a general election. It’s about the corruption investigations and whether or not (the ruling) AKP [Party] is good," said Aydintasbas.
Prime Minister Erdogan has been mired in corruption allegations since last December, when prosecutors launched probes into high-level government graft.
In his speeches at mass meetings across the country, Erdogan claims the corruption probes are part of a conspiracy to unseat his government and insists an election victory will vindicate him.
But his campaign has been handicapped by back-to-back releases of alleged telephone recordings of the prime minister and members of his inner circle implicating him in corruption and misdeeds.
In an unprecedented move, Turkish authorities banned both Twitter and YouTube in a bid to block the release of further recordings.
Kadri Gursel, a political columnist for Turkey's Milliyet newspaper, says if the prime minister fails at the polls, it could trigger unrest within his own party.
"I don’t think in his party that every repressing, oppressing, limiting move is accepted and approved and welcomed. But I think people in his party do wait for the local elections," said Gursel.
According to opinion polls, the ruling AK Party enjoys a strong lead. Erdogan has defined success as surpassing the 38 percent share of the votes he secured in the last local elections. But observers say just as important will be the AK Party's ability to maintain its 20-year municipal control of the capital Ankara and Istanbul - both of which, the same polls indicate, will be close contests.
Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, says the importance of the polls and political polarization make Sunday's election a difficult test for Turkey's democracy.
"The local elections are as important as any elections I have witnessed since my birth. It will test our ability to conduct our elections freely and fairly. Already, it’s not really very fair because of the non-exposure of certain political parties, the control of the media and stuff like that. But we have never really had serious problems in the way we conduct our elections and I hope the municipal elections don’t turn out to be the first one," said Ozel.
According to figures published by RTUK, the government’s own media watchdog, during one week of election campaigning, one of the state TV channels devoted 89 percent of its coverage to the ruling party. The remaining 11 percent was divided among the three main opposition parties.
Concern over the fairness of the election campaign has extended to Brussels, according to Richard Howitt, a member of European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Certainly watching carefully; we cannot, obviously, say in advance whether we believe they will be fair or not. But we will absolutely be watching carefully. That will be done through the Council of Europe. The results of that will be taken extremely seriously," said Howitt.
All of Turkey’s main political parties, including the ruling AK Party, have voiced fears over the fairness of the polls. All of the parties, as well as non-partisan organizations, are mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers to monitor the vote.
But even if it is fair and the government wins, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, warns that the corruption allegations and deepening political polarization could ultimately make any electoral success a pyrrhic victory for the prime minister.
"I am afraid the political consequences will be quite severe, because regardless the vote [the] AKP will get in local elections, it's become much more difficult for Erdogan to rule this country, essentially because of this erosion of legitimacy," said Ulgen.
With the election fast approaching, all the political parties are intensifying their campaigns . Whatever the outcome of Sunday's vote, observers say the result is likely to have a profound effect on Turkey's political future.