ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party appeared headed toward a sizable victory in the country's municipal elections Sunday, despite a corruption scandal that continues to swirl around Prime Minister
With 85% of the vote counted, the party, known as the AKP, had secured between 44% and 47% of municipal posts, while the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, garnered between 27% and 29%, according to Turkish media reports early Monday.
Official results were expected later Monday.
The vote was widely viewed as a litmus test of damage inflicted on the AKP by the graft inquiry and Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian stance in the face of it.
At a victory speech outside the party's headquarters in Ankara, the capital, Erdogan said his opponents had "eaten an Ottoman slap," reflecting his tendency to refer back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. He vowed to hunt down rivals, who he believes are plotting his overthrow.
The party handily won the last three general elections. Despite the apparent victory, a result in the low 40% range would represent a dip from 2011 general election results and might hurt Erdogan's hopes of running for president in elections later this year.
"Turkey is a very centralized country, so local elections are never really about the municipalities — rather they are seen as a rehearsal for general elections," said Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center.
In the midst of the ever-expanding corruption investigation and a spate of leaked recordings posted online over the last three months, Erdogan campaigned hard, casting the elections as part of a battle against sinister but unnamed foreign forces.
The prime minister's rhetoric grew increasingly incendiary as the pressure on him mounted, often referring to opponents as traitors and "bloodsuckers." In recent weeks, some pro- and anti-AKP rallies turned violent. However, election day saw only sporadic violence.
Despite Erdogan's heavy-handed efforts this month to curb access to Twitter and YouTube, the prime minister remains popular among many Turks, particularly in the religiously austere central and eastern Anatolian municipalities.
"We need a strong leader like Erdogan in these times," said fisherman Ismail Kayla, 66, voting in the AKP stronghold of Fatih, a district of Istanbul. "Turkey is facing serious problems: the rioters in Gezi Park, the plotting by Fethullah Gulen," an Islamic preacher living in the United States who has a strong following in Turkey.
Sunday's votes in Istanbul, the largest Turkish city, and Ankara were the most closely watched. The competition was tight for several hours, but AKP candidates began to emerge victorious in both centers early Monday, though the margins were narrow.
The result deals a further blow to more liberal, Western-oriented Turks who fear that Erdogan is waging a war on their lifestyles.
"We need to change this corrupt government. We tried with protests in Gezi Park last year, but that didn't work," said Nazli, a 24-year-old chef who asked that only her first name be used for safety reasons.
"Voting is the only means," she said as she waited to cast her ballot Sunday in the CHP bastion of the Fenerbahce area of Istanbul. "We have to pursue legal democratic channels now. I'm not sure if it will work; the AKP is so very strong."