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Turkey's local polls set to give Erdogan reform boost
Fri Mar 27, 2009 5:17pm EDT
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By Ibon Villelabeitia
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling party is set to win a clear victory in Sunday's local polls despite a worsening economy, freeing popular Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's hand to pursue his reformist drive in the European Union candidate.
Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor, is hoping to wrest the mainly Kurdish southeast from pro-Kurdish parties in what might prove a historic step toward solving a conflict weighing heavily on economic and political development.
A strong mandate nationwide for the Islamist-rooted AK Party, Turkey's most stable government in decades, would give Erdogan a boost to push measures aimed at bringing the Muslim country closer to the EU and protect a once fast growing economy now under strain due to the global economic crisis.
But any sharp drop in support in municipal elections could increase political hazards in a country with a long history of instability and invigorate an entrenched secularist opposition that accuses Erdogan of pursuing a stealthy religious agenda.
In the background, a coup plot case is unsettling markets and raising tension between government and secularists. More than 140 people, including retired senior officers, face charges they planned to engineer an army coup to unseat Erdogan.
Erdogan denies he prompted the probe for his political ends.
Polls this week showed AK winning 40-50 percent of the vote despite record unemployment, a slowing economy and graft allegations; a result largely due to Erdogan's popularity and the weakness of opposition parties crushed by the new-formed AK Party in 2002 and still unable to regain their hold.
Opinion surveys, however, are famously inaccurate in Turkey.
Growing joblessness and an expected economic contraction in 2009 after years of unprecedented growth could erode some gains Turkey has made since the AK Party first took office in 2002.
In an interview with NTV Friday, Erdogan said it would be a "failure" his party won less in the provincial assemblies vote than the 47 percent it won in a 2007 general vote.
"We believe that a 40-45 percent AKP victory would be slightly positive because it would leave the domestic political landscape more or less unchanged while allowing the AKP to refocus on pressing economic issues," a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote in a research note this week.
The IMF and Turkey have been in talks for months on a deal markets say is key to shielding the $750 billion economy from the global crisis. Investors, hit by risk-aversion, expect the deal's fate to be clear after Sunday's election.
Erdogan has pledged to reform the 1982 army-drafted constitution, a step which would remove some obstacles toward EU membership of the country of 72 million people. The secularist camp, lukewarm to Europe, resists such plans.
Under his party, rooted in political Islam but also embracing nationalists and center-right elements, the NATO member has been busy mediating in conflicts from the Middle East and the Caucasus to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Continued...
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