ISTANBUL — The party of embattled Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed for a comfortable win in municipal elections on Sunday, despite a corruption scandal and complaints about his increasingly authoritarian behavior.
With more than 60 percent of the vote counted, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) was leading with about 44 percent of the votes, well ahead of its nearest rival, the Republican People's Party (CHP), which had 26 percent.
The result will be seen as a resounding victory for Erdogan and a vindication of his increasingly heavy handed tactics, including bans imposed on the social media sites Twitter and YouTube in the days ahead of the vote, said Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University.
"The tactics worked," he said. "It is a big success for Erdogan and a big failure for the opposition."
Shortly before midnight, Erdogan declared victory to a jubilant crowd in Ankara, delivering a defiant speech in which he taunted his opponents and vowed to hunt down those responsible for disseminating allegations of corruption against him.
"We are going to go into the caves of those traitors," he said, referring to the Gulenist movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic religious leader and former ally, whom Erdogan has accused of leaking a series of tapes that appear to reveal widespread corruption within his administration. "Some of them may run away but they are going to pay for what they have done."
The closely watched poll took on the significance of a nationwide referendum on Erdogan's 11-year rule after a slew of corruption allegations threatened to tarnish his reputation. Taking the form of leaked recordings of conversations mostly featuring the prime minister that were posted anonymously online, the allegations prompted Erdogan to lash out at social media and crack down on journalists.
Many of those who headed to the polls in central Istanbul, where anti-government protests were ruthlessly suppressed last year, said they feared for democratic freedoms in a Turkey run by the increasingly authoritarian prime minister.
"People are voting just to get rid of Erdogan," said Meltem Safak, 28, who participated in last summer's demonstrations and cast her ballot for the CHP. "We are voting against dictatorship."
Yet as Sunday's result showed, Erdogan can count on the loyalties of a core constituency of Turks, many of them working and lower middle class, who share his conservative inclinations and applaud the transformation he has wrought to the once dismal Turkish economy. Maps of the results showed the secular opposition CHP leading in constituencies in the wealthier, urban, coastal areas while the AKP was winning in the vast, less affluent hinterland.