As Turks vote in local elections, all eyes are on Prime Minister Erdogan's next moves

The Associated Press

A poster of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen in an election billboard of his Justice and Development Party with a mosque in the background in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, March 27, 2014. Erdogan has been ensnared in a corruption scandal that has toppled four Cabinet ministers. He has provoked outrage at home and abroad with an attempt to block Twitter and YouTube. His incessant us-against-them rhetoric and conspiracy theories have alienated allies. Meanwhile, the Turkish Lira has fallen, interest rates are up and the Turkish economy has fallen off a cliff. It all might be enough to oust any leader. But as Turks prepare to vote in local elections Sunday, it’s all about Erdogan.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

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By DESMOND BUTLER and SUZAN FRASER, Associated Press

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ensnared in a corruption scandal that has toppled four Cabinet ministers. He has provoked outrage at home and abroad with an attempt to block Twitter and YouTube. His incessant us-against-them rhetoric and conspiracy theories have alienated allies. Meanwhile, the Turkish Lira has fallen, interest rates are up and the Turkish economy has fallen off a cliff.

It all might be enough to oust any leader.

But as Turks prepare to vote in local elections Sunday, Erdogan remains at the center of the political scene.

Despite his woes, Erdogan — who has presided over Turkey's astonishing economic ascent as well as its recent troubles — is Turkey's ubiquitous man. His image is everywhere in the streets and on TV. He leads daily campaign rallies, in which the local candidates he is supporting have a decisively secondary role. The size and the fervor of these rallies, which regularly attract hundreds of thousands of supporters, show that nearly 11 years into his tenure as prime minister, Erdogan remains the pre-eminent figure in Turkish politics.

Erdogan is buoyed by a dysfunctional opposition and the adulation of devout Muslim middle-classes in Turkey's heartland, who have seen him as their ticket to prosperity and who are likely to back him through thick and thin.

While there is no doubt that the corruption scandal has damaged him, the questions looming over Sunday's vote are how the results may influence his next big moves and his political options.

It remains unclear whether he'll run for president this summer. Erdogan has harbored ambitions of changing the constitution to strengthen the role of the largely ceremonial presidency — so he can step into the post and rule Turkey with as much authority as he has enjoyed as premier. He is prohibited from running again as prime minister by term limits that he himself instituted.

However, the abrasive tack he has taken since he was re-elected with nearly 50 percent of the vote in June 2011 has cost him the support of a Kurdish party that he needs to pass the constitutional changes. It's also unclear whether he could ever achieve the 50 percent of the vote required to capture the presidency.

Erdogan has signaled that he may choose another option: to backtrack on term-limits and run for a fourth term as prime minister in parliamentary elections. Those elections are slated for next year, but the government could move them up to coincide with the presidential elections, if they see that as an advantage.

Although quality polling is hard to come by in Turkey, it is widely expected that his AK Party will outstrip opposition parties Sunday, winning a plurality of the vote. But how much of a plurality will matter. Erdogan's party has already been trying to lower expectations. His party has pointed to the 39 percent they received in the 2009 local elections as a benchmark.

Races for mayor in Ankara and Istanbul will also be watched for signs that Erdogan's power base is eroding. In both cities, the main-opposition CHP has entered candidates with broader appeal than usual to take on incumbents from Erdogan's party.

Even with all of the corruption revelations, Erdogan's entrenched advantage seems to be a divided and dysfunctional opposition, whose support is spread across a number of parties. Until recently, AKP had cultivated an image of pragmatism and economic stewardship that was bolstered by a booming economy. So far the opposition has not made the case that they can make the trains run on time.

"There is a drop in the support for AKP but it is not at the level one would normally expect. In normal circumstances they would have been bulldozed to the ground," says Ali Tekin, a political analyst and former professor of political science. But he added: "Those who would like to leave the AKP can't find an alternative center-right party to go to."