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Turks vote in local polls marred by violence

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Defeat in Ankara or Istanbul would deal a symbolic blow to President Erdogan.

Ankara

TURKS voted on Sunday in local elections which President Tayyip Erdogan has described as a matter of survival for Turkey and which were tarnished by violence that left two party members dead in the country's southeast.

Mr Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years thanks in part to strong economic growth, has become the country's most popular, yet also most divisive, leader in modern history.

However, he could be dealt an electoral blow with polls indicating his ruling AK Party (AKP) may lose control of the capital Ankara, and even Istanbul, the country's largest city.

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With the economy contracting following a currency crisis last year in which the lira lost more than 30 per cent of its value, some voters appeared ready to punish Mr Erdogan, who has ruled with an increasingly uncompromising stance.

"I was actually not going to vote today, but when I saw how much they (AKP) were flailing, I thought this might be time to land them a blow. Everyone is unhappy. Everyone is struggling," said 47-year-old Hakan after voting in Ankara.

Voting started at 7 am in eastern Turkey and an hour later in the rest of the country. Polling stations close at 4 pm in the east and 5 pm in the west. Just over 57 million people are eligible to vote.

Last week, as authorities again scrambled to shore up the lira, Mr Erdogan cast the country's economic woes as resulting from attacks by the West, saying Turkey would overcome its troubles following Sunday's vote and adding he was "the boss" of the economy.

Sunday's elections, in which Turks vote for mayors and other local officials across the country, are the first since Mr Erdogan assumed sweeping presidential powers last year and will be a reckoning for his government, which has come under fire for its economic policies and record on human rights.

The election was marred by violence in the southeast and Istanbul.

Two members of the small Islamist Felicity Party, a polling station official and an election observer, were shot dead in Malatya province, a party spokesman said. Media reports said one person had been detained.

After voting in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan said he was saddened by the incident and that it was being thoroughly investigated. Some 553,000 police and security force members were on duty for the vote nationwide.

In Diyarbakir, two people were hurt, one of them critically, after being stabbed in a dispute between candidates, a hospital source said. Dozens of people were hurt in other election-related clashes in the southeast, media reported. One person was stabbed as 15 people clashed in a row between candidates in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, a police source said.

Defeat in Ankara or Istanbul would end nearly a quarter of a century of rule by Mr Erdogan's AKP or its predecessors in those cities and deal a symbolic blow to Turkey's leader. REUTERS