Voters across Turkey began casting their ballots on Sunday in critical local elections that are seen as a test of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership.
The Turkish president has battled to avert a slump in support for his ruling party amid a contracting economy, runaway food prices and rising unemployment that followed in the wake of last year’s currency crisis.
In a bid to distract from those concerns, Mr Erdogan has sought to cast the municipal vote as a matter of national security and survival in the face of threat from a dark alliance of external and internal foes.
“I want you to use your votes to give a lesson to all the enemies of our flag and our call to prayer; to all those who target our independence and our future,” he told supporters at one of six rallies he attended in Istanbul on the final day of campaigning on Saturday.
Turkey’s two largest cities of Istanbul and Ankara have been controlled by the Turkish president’s Justice and Development party (AKP) and its political forebears for the past 25 years. But Mr Erdogan frets that they could slip from his grasp.
In both cities, the contest has effectively become a two-horse race between the candidates nominated by a pro-government bloc and an alliance of opposition parties. Both are expected to be close races.
Analysts will also be watching the national share of the vote obtained by the Turkish president and his political allies across the rest of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Slipping below a 50 per cent share of the national vote would be seen as a blow for Mr Erdogan.
Opposition parties have complained about efforts by the Turkish government and the pro-government media to cast them as terrorists in the run-up to the vote.
On Saturday, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which draws much of its support from leftwing members of the country’s Kurdish minority, said that 53 of its members were detained in overnight raids. The government accuses the HDP of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has waged a decades-long armed insurgency against the Turkish state.
The HDP, which denies that accusation, described the new wave of arrests as an “attack” that would “cast a shadow” over the election.
Polling stations close at 3pm UK time, with preliminary results expected on Sunday night or early on Monday morning.
International investors will be closely following the outcome after a torrid time for Turkey’s financial markets in the final week before polling.