ANKARA: The party of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a strong lead in local elections Sunday, despite turbulent months marked by mass protests, corruption scandals and Internet blocks.
If the national trend holds up, it would considerably brighten the outlook for Erdogan, who had gone on a weeks-long campaign marathon ahead of the vote widely seen as a referendum on his 11-year-rule.
Nationwide, his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) had a 46-27 percent lead in municipal polls over the secular main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), with a third of votes counted, CNN-Turk reported.
While the AKP was also far ahead in the sprawling metropolis Istanbul and many other cities, the race looked tight in the capital Ankara, with Erdogan's party narrowly leading at 45 against the CHP's 43 percent, CNN-Turk said.
"Results show us that Erdogan has survived these scandals with very little damage," Mehmet Akif Okur of Ankara's Gazi University told AFP.
"Voters believe that if Erdogan falls, they will fall with him. No matter how serious the corruption allegations are, the voters supported Erdogan to keep the status they have acquired under his rule."
Erdogan has been eyeing a run for the presidency in August -- the first time voters will directly elect the head of state -- or may ask his party to change rules and allow him to seek a fourth term as premier.
Despite much criticism at home and abroad over what has been labelled his increasingly authoritarian rule, Erdogan and his party have drawn large crowds cheering the man sometimes dubbed "the sultan".
Earlier Sunday, casting his own vote in Istanbul, former city mayor Erdogan had voiced confidence in a broad victory, saying that "our people will tell the truth today... what the people say is what it is".
Anticipating a poll triumph, a boisterous crowd of his flag-waving followers were watching TV coverage on a large screen outside AKP headquarters in Ankara, waiting for Erdogan to give a "balcony speech".
Months of turmoil
Months of political turmoil -- fought out in fierce street clashes and explosive Internet leaks -- have left Turkey polarised between Erdogan's Muslim conservative supporters and a secular political camp.
The premier's heavy-handed response to being challenged on the streets and online has included a police crackdown on protesters in Istanbul that left eight dead and blocks on Twitter and YouTube.
The clampdown has alienated NATO allies and detracted from Erdogan's much lauded record of driving an economic boom and transforming the country spanning Europe and Asia into an emerging global player.
"Our democracy must be strengthened and cleansed," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition CHP, as he cast his vote Sunday, vowing to build "a pleasant society".
Two activists of the group Femen, which has backed the demonstrations and protested the Twitter ban, were arrested after staging a bare-breasted protest with the words "Ban Erdogan" across their chests.
Since December, Erdogan's inner circle has been hit by damaging online leaks, with wide-ranging bribery and sleaze claims against the prime minister and his political and business allies going viral in the youthful country.
Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, an influential US-based Muslim cleric, and his loyalists in the Turkish police and justice system, of being behind the leaks and plotting his downfall.
The spiralling crisis has sent down the Turkish lira and stock market in recent months and rattled investors' faith in the Muslim democracy that has often been described as a model for post-Arab Spring countries.
If Erdogan's party manages to sustain its lead as the ballot count continues, it would suggest such troubles have been largely shrugged off by many of Turkey's over 50 million eligible voters.
"With these results, Erdogan will run for the presidency," said Okur. "Because his self-esteem has been boosted and (President Abdullah) Gul has no chance of success against a stronger Erdogan.
"Seeing that his 'authoritarian' measures have not hurt him at the ballot box, Erdogan will be more ambitious in pushing through tougher policies. I would expect lawsuits against the Gulen movement and arrests in the coming days."