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Both sides in Sunday’s local elections in Turkey are warning there may be ballot fraud.
The main opposition party CHP says it will deploy thousands of poll watchers.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who represents the AK party, is cautioning his supporters to be wary that opponents might try to use social media to trick them into spoiling their ballots. Last week, his government tried to shut down Twitter.
Sunday’s vote is the beginning of a 15-month election cycle that will also feature presidential and parliamentary polls.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW, and first it was Twitter, now it is You Tube. Both social networks have been shut down in Turkey by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party faces elections this weekend. The ban on You Tube was apparently prompted by an audio recording in which senior Turkish minister are allegedly talking about a military operation in Syria. Some people in Turkey have been able to circumvent the social media bans, but they are not happy about them. And here some of them speaking to the BBC.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) I've been a Facebook and a You Tube user for years. I'm uneasy over these developments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) I wonder how far they will go to curb our freedom. First Twitter, now You Tube. What's next, Facebook? How far will they go, and when will this end?
HOBSON: Elmira Bayrasli is a fellow at the World Policy Institute, also the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted. She was in Turkey recently and joins us now from NPR in New York. Elmira, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
ELMIRA BAYRASLI: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: Well, what do you make of what the Erdogan government is doing here, trying to ban certain parts of social media in Turkey?
BAYRASLI: Prime Minister Erdogan has been having a hard year. Last June there were anti-government protests throughout the country that were prompted initially by just a small anti-environmentalist movement in a park in Istanbul. That really blew up into full-fledged anti-government protests as a result of his heavy-handed reaction to that small gathering.
He has since then been challenged by a very popular Muslim preacher who actually lives here in the United States, Fethullah Gulen. And they've been locked in a very nasty power struggle. A lot of what we're seeing now is Erdogan's reaction to trying to maintain his power and really playing to his core constituency, which is a very anti-Western, very conservative voter in the Turkish countryside that really reacts well to Erdogan's aggression and his belligerence and him pushing back against these so-called opponents and enemies of Turkey.
HOBSON: Well, what about this explanation, though, from the government that the reason You Tube had to be blocked was because there was this video of Turkish ministers talking about taking military action in Syria and that they didn't want that getting out there because of relations between the two countries?
BAYRASLI: This is not the first time that You Tube has been blocked in Turkey. In 2008, the government blocked You Tube back then because there were actually videos against the Turkish founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. That lasted for about 30 months, and they lifted that ban.
This You Tube ban has come as a result of this Twitter ban and this general sense that Erdogan really needs to show that he is fighting back against the - again, he's talking about all these so-called enemies that he has and really taking this governance strategy where he seems to be on the offensive and really trying to protect the core constituency that have really rallied behind Erdogan.
HOBSON: Well, how do you think that Turkish voters will react? As we say, they're going to have local elections there this weekend. This is seen as a first test for Erdogan. This is the first time that Turks will vote since the protests started in June of last year.
BAYRASLI: Sunday's elections are going to be very interesting to watch. Since the beginning of the year, since all these problems and corruption allegations have come up against the prime minister, his poll numbers have dropped. But a lot of people in Turkey still support his party, the Justice and Development Party, which go by the initials AKP. It's still, it's a very well-organized party. It has a really great grassroots get out of the vote infrastructure, and the other reason that the AKP does really well is that Turkey's opposition has been very weak for several decades.
And with that weak opposition, Erdogan has been able to gain traction. What will happen on Sunday will be very interesting. The poll numbers have it at a very tight race. There are municipal elections. So the two cities that everybody is watching are the big cities, the capital city, Ankara, and the commercial capital Istanbul.
HOBSON: And let's talk about the opposition because Aykan Erdemir, this is a member of Turkey's main opposition party, spoke to the BBC today about Prime Minister Erdogan. Let's listen.
AYKAN ERDEMIR: He is a mastermind of populism. His rhetoric, which capitalizes on deep-seated anxieties, prejudices. So I think we will again end up with a divided Turkey.
HOBSON: Do you agree that there will be a divided Turkey after these elections? And what would that look like?
BAYRASLI: A lot of people are talking about Sunday's elections as being a referendum on the people's position of the world. Do they support Erdogan's world view of the underdog black Turk, the people who have long been suppressed in Turkey, or are they going to be voting on the side of the few secularists and the people who really want to uphold Ataturk's principles?
I think that it is going to be very polarized. I don't think Turkey's troubles are going to go away after Sunday. I think Erdogan has indicated that he will clamp down even further, that there will be further ramifications as a result of these leaked tapes, these surreptitiously recorded meetings and phone conversations.
There is also in August, coming up later this year, presidential elections. And Erdogan has talked about - there is rumors that he wants to run for president. Depending on what happens on Sunday will determine what his next course of events are. According to the AKP's own rules, he must stand down because he's served out his term, but there are other rumors in Turkey that if he's not going to run for president that he will change those rules, kind of pull a Putin-Medvedev, and stand for election again.
HOBSON: For president.
BAYRASLI: And there'll be general elections in 2015.
HOBSON: Well, some people may be listening to this here in the United States and saying why does this matter to me, why do I care about what's going on in Turkey? We should say Turkey is a member of NATO. It is a mostly Muslim country, 76 million people, and you could say, you probably should say it's the most European, most Western Muslim country that there is, and the U.S. should care what's going on in Turkey. What's the U.S.' role? What's Washington's role in what's happening?
BAYRASLI: When President Obama was first elected, one of the first trips that he made was to Turkey. In 2009 he traveled, he actually addressed the Turkish parliament, in which he talked about a model partnership with the Turks. At that point Prime Minister Erdogan had really in his sound management of the Turkish economy had really pulled Turkey up to be the 16th largest economy in the world.
Again as you pointed out, it is a NATO ally. It's also a geo-strategic center. Turkey is at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Russia. And in terms of President Obama, he really saw what Erdogan has done, he's an outwardly observant Muslim, and he's led - he led this great economy, and I think the United States has depended on that as a model specifically for the Middle East.
HOBSON: Elmira Bayrasli is co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, a fellow at the World Policy Institute. We'll be watching to see what happens with the elections this Sunday, and we'll continue to follow this story next week. Elmira, thanks so much for joining us.
BAYRASLI: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.