ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s ruling AK Party won local elections on Sunday but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, hurt by a weak economy, fell short of a sweeping victory that would have smoothed the way for reforms in the EU candidate.
The AK Party was unable to win the city of Diyarbakir, the largest in the Kurdish southeast, and several other key cities, including Izmir. The secularist opposition also made inroads in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and in the capital Ankara.
The vote, the first time the Islamist-rooted AK Party had suffered a slide in support since it swept to power in 2002, took place against a backdrop of record unemployment and a worsening economy. Turkey’s once booming economy has been severely hit by the global economic crisis.
“This is a message from the people and we will take the necessary lessons. A cabinet reshuffle is possible, though not necessarily related to the election results,” a visibly downcast Erdogan told a news conference at party headquarters.
Unofficial results with 80 percent of votes counted showed the AK Party winning 39 percent of the vote in provincial assemblies as voters remained convinced Erdogan was in the best position to steer the Muslim country through the global economic downturn.
“If the AK Party falls below 40 percent and loses Istanbul, this will be serious for Erdogan,” said Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the newspaper Radikal, often critical of the government.
In an interview on Friday, Erdogan said he would consider it a failure if his party received less in the provincial assembly votes than the 47 percent it won in the 2007 parliamentary election.
The vote for mayors and municipal and provincial assemblies was marred by violence in which at least five people were killed in the southeast in clashes between rival supporters for non-party village chief posts. Nearly 100 people were injured.
Erdogan had aggressively campaigned across Turkey for weeks, particularly in the southeast, hoping a win there would bring a shift in a region marred by separatist violence that has weighed heavily on the country’s economic and political development.
Local elections have traditionally been important in Turkey, with governments severely handicapped if they failed to score well. The results are not expected to halt reforms but may force Erdogan to seek more compromises to achieve his goals.
The results indicated that unemployment at 13.6 percent and an economy expected to go into recession in 2009 after years of unprecedented growth has taken a toll on the AK Party, which swept to power after crushing secularists in a 2002 election.
The party has been criticized by Turkey’s business community for being too slow to react to the weakening global economy.
“It is a reality check that points to the need to focus on the economy ... Hopefully they will refocus on structural issues, especially longer term economic aspects,” said Christian Keller, an emerging markets analyst at Barclays Capital in London.
Still, the results stand in sharp contrast to the backlash against governments in Eastern Europe, where their economies have been hit harder by the global economic crisis and some governments have fallen.
The secularist CHP opposition, which accuses the AK Party of having a hidden Islamist agenda, gained ground, winning 23 percent. The far-right MHP won 16 percent.
“I have nothing against the AK Party, but I will vote for the CHP this time because I think we need change,” said Mehmet Demir, a civil servant, voting at a school in Ankara.
The AK Party, rooted in political Islam but also embracing nationalists and center-right elements, was nearly closed down by the Constitutional Court for Islamist activities in 2008 in a case that rattled financial markets and polarized Turkey.
Erdogan has pledged to reform the constitution drafted by the military in 1982 and change the way the Constitutional Court works — steps that would remove some obstacles to EU membership but could revive tension with secularists who accuse him of pursuing an Islamist agenda. Erdogan denies this.
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. Markets still expect Erdogan to complete those talks after Sunday’s vote.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Diyarbakir; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Andrew Dobbie