AK Party wins Turkish vote but reforms less clear

Turkey's ruling AK Party won local elections yesterday 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.