* Erdogan dismisses international concern
* President Gul has ruled out social media ban
* Rival parties warn of fraud in high-stakes vote
(Adds Erdogan comments on social media)
By Jonny Hogg and Gulsen Solaker
ANKARA, March 20 Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan threatened to shut down Twitter and other social media
platforms on Thursday and said he did not care about the
international response, his latest outburst in an increasingly
bitter election campaign.
Anger, threats and conspiracy theories have marked the
run-up to the March 30 local elections, with Erdogan battling a
corruption scandal he says is orchestrated by his enemies, much
of it waged via leaks on Twitter and YouTube.
"Twitter, mwitter!," Erdogan told thousands of supporters at
a rally in the northwestern province of Bursa, in a phrase
translating roughly as "Twitter, schmitter!".
"We will wipe out all of these," he said.
"The international community can say this, can say that. I
don't care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic
of Turkey is," he said in a characteristically unyielding tone.
Erdogan said two weeks ago that Turkey could ban Facebook
and YouTube, which he says have been abused by
his enemies after a stream of audio recordings purportedly
revealing corruption in his inner circle emerged online.
President Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of Erdogan's ruling AK
Party who is seen as a more conciliatory figure, later ruled out
any such move.
The corruption scandal has further polarized Turkish society
and raised the stakes in local elections now widely seen as a
referendum on Erdogan's rule. Both sides have warned about
ballot abuse, with the main opposition saying it alone plans to
deploy half a million poll observers.
The AK Party is expected to follow suit.
Erdogan was shaken last June by anti-government protests,
which have been rekindled in recent weeks partly by the graft
scandal. But polls suggest his party is on course to maintain
its dominance of the electoral map in the municipal vote, albeit
with tight races in the major cities of Istanbul and Ankara.
"When we take into account the atmosphere in Turkey right
now, this election is more meaningful than ever," said Emrehan
Halici, deputy chairman of the main CHP opposition party.
He said the CHP would have people monitoring voting at all
200,000 ballot boxes across the country and bolster an online
system it launched at general elections in 2011 to allow voters
to cross-check the results.
"Turkish citizens have doubts over these elections, and
they're right to," Halici told Reuters.
"ATMOSPHERE OF MISTRUST"
The local elections mark the start of a critical 15-month
voting cycle for Turkey, with presidential and parliamentary
polls also due, and the campaigns on both sides have been
peppered with allegations of potential fraud.
The AK Party mayoral candidate in Ankara this week warned
about the risk of "vanishing ink". Erdogan himself has told his
supporters not to be duped by opponents using social media to
try to trick them into inadvertently spoiling their ballots.
Despite a turbulent political past, Turkey's previous
elections have been largely seen as free and fair, with overall
control of the process resting in the hands of top judges on the
country's Supreme Electoral Board.
But a controversial law pushed through by the AK Party last
month has seen the judiciary come under greater government
control, raising alarm in among other places, the European
Union, which Turkey has been seeking to join for decades.
Last week 18 European MPs sent a letter to EU High
Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton urging her
to request an invitation from Turkey for election observers.
"(There's) an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy, deep
polarisation and sometimes aggression," Dutch liberal MP
Marietje Schaake, who authored the letter, told Reuters.
With less than two weeks until polling day, it would be
impossible to deploy a full observer team, Schaake said. But she
argued that credible monitoring was vital to avoid controversy
over the results sparking any further tensions.
The EU does not normally monitor local polls, and Ankara has
received no request for an invitation, a Turkish official told
Reuters, although Erdogan has said international teams are
welcome to monitor the vote if they wish to.
Erdogan was on the campaign trail on Thursday, having on
Wednesday angrily threatened to "ban a ban" imposed on his
party's main campaign video after electoral authorities blocked
it for misusing national symbols.
The video shows a shadowy figure cutting the cords on a huge
Turkish flag, before loyal citizens rush to form a human
flagpole to keep it flying.
(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Humeyra Pamuk;
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Hugh