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Turkey Turkey elections 2018 Recep Tayyip Erdogan AKP

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Erdogan supporters pitch for votes in Turkish opposition's stronghold

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim visited the opposition stronghold of Izmir on Wednesday to meet local officials he hopes can deliver votes for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

If opinion polls are to be believed, the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan face their toughest challenge since they first took power 16 years ago.

Yildirim flew into Izmir to meet several hundred mohtars – village and area chiefs – at a spa hotel nestled between the mountains and the Aegean Sea.

Politicians go out of their way to cultivate the mohtars, believing they are close to the people and can deliver votes.

Most of the grassroots leaders lining up to enter the meeting seemed won to the AKP’s cause, or loath to admit it if they weren’t.

“He stands behind his people,” said one of them, Bilal Dogan. “He supports his people and he is being very democratic and developing democracy and will do better democratic things in the future.”

Presidential powers extended

That would not appear to be the opinion of the 69 percent of Izmir’s electorate who voted against Erdogan’s constitutional reforms last year.

Besides abolishing Yildirim’s job, once the elections are over and done with, they gave the presidency extended powers.

That, an ongoing clampdown on the media, and the state of emergency declared after 2016’s failed coup – which has seen thousands jailed or fired from their jobs – have led to accusations that Erdogan is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Sitting in the hotel lobby as Yildirim met the mohtars, Aydin Shengül, one of the AKP’s eight MPs for the area, dismissed the accusation as baseless, invented by the opposition and the coup’s supporters.

“Turkey has grown more democratic and closer to European Union values under Erdogan,” he said. “Since 2002 Turkey has become richer. The average income was 3,000 dollars, now it’s 10,000 dollars, more than three times higher. The number of classrooms has increased, education is getting better and our infrastructure is getting better.”

The AKP has won support through introducing improvements to the lives of poorer Turks, many of whom are devout Muslims and feel despised by the secular middle classes who back the opposition.

But soaring inflation, rising unemployment and a sinking currency have hit their living standards and may have eroded support for Erdogan’s party, meaning the opposition can hope to make gains in Sunday’s polls.