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Elections to test Erdogan's appeal

A helicopter crash has led to a suspension of last-minute campaigning ahead of the elections.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech as he campaigns ahead of the March 29 local elections in central Anatolian city of Sivas Feb. 13, 2009. (Kayhan Ozer/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — He's seen as a poor kid made good, and his recent blow-up onstage at the Davos economic forum displayed the kind of macho toughness many Turks respect in a leader. But experts say Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's charismatic prime minister, and his ruling AK party can count entirely on another factor to win this weekend's local elections: a lack of competition.

And political personalities aside, as Turks across the country head to the polls on Saturday for local elections, one issue will likely be foremost in their minds: the economy. (In a twist, however, Turkish political leaders have suspended all last-minute campaigning out of respect for Muhsin Yazicioglu, leader of the Great Unity Party. Yazicioglu was one of six people on a helicopter that crashed this week — the search for the passengers continues.)

With unemployment at a record high — 13.6 percent for the general population and almost 26 percent for young adults — traditional party ideologies and local politics will take a back seat to worries over whose policies will best help families ride out the current financial crisis.

The leaders of Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) are hoping to strengthen its lock on power with a strong showing in towns and cities. But the economy has emerged as a threat to the party's political fortunes.

“The economic crisis will play a very important role in the elections,” said Barcin Yinanc, news editor at Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “I think the AKP will lose votes because of the implications of the economic crisis on Turkey.”

The AKP came to power in 2002, just a year after a severe economic downturn, and helped to foster an economic transformation of grand proportions, bringing Turkey through a period of instability and runaway inflation and steering its emergence as one of the world’s hottest economies.

But worrying indicators have appeared in recent months. Inflation is again inching up, now standing at 9 percent, and many fear that Turkey could roll back towards the political and economic instability that plagued the country in the period leading up to the 2001 economic crisis.

Thus far, however, the Turkish economy has proved more resilient than expected.