ISTANBUL // Less than four weeks before Turkey goes to the polls, the gloves have come off. Unknown assailants beat up a local representative of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Turkey's main secular opposition party, in the western city of Bodrum last week. Only two days before, members of the women's wing of the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, were beaten by other women as they tried to distribute leaflets in a neighbourhood of the south-eastern city of Batman. And in Istanbul, someone threw a petrol bomb at an AKP campaign office.
No one paid much attention to those incidents, however. Election campaigns in Turkey have never been for the faint-hearted, and the current race before local elections on March 29 is no exception. Apart from the odd fist fight, the campaign has seen sex and corruption scandals as well as a bitter row between the government and the country's most powerful media conglomerate. "It may seem very harsh from the outside, but it does not seem especially rough to me," one veteran pollster, Tarhan Erdem, said about the election campaign. "It has always been like this."
Although the outcome of the polls will have no direct effect on the government or the distribution of seats in Ankara's parliament, politicians and the public alike regard them as a key test for the popularity of the government and the opposition. In many ways, the campaign resembles a general election campaign. Mr Erdogan alone wants to address meetings in 60 of Turkey's 81 provinces before polling day.
As politicians criss-cross the country, many squares in towns and cities are festooned with party flags and posters, and vehicles with loudspeakers roll through the streets, urging people to vote for this or that party. Mayoral races in such big cities as Ankara and Istanbul are followed with special interest. Both cities are governed by the AKP at the moment. Polls give the AKP a clear lead in Istanbul, but the CHP may have a chance in Ankara.
In the Kurdish region in south-eastern Anatolia, the AKP wants to conquer as many town halls as possible from Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP. During a recent visit to the region, Mr Erdogan told a crowd of several thousand people that his government was committed to bringing "justice, freedom and services" to the region, which is one of the poorest in the country.
He also reminded voters that it was his government that introduced a 24-hour Kurdish television channel this year. While AKP politicians have been touting Turkey's economic rise and democratic reforms of recent years, the opposition has attacked the government with accusations of corruption and abuse of power. Under the AKP government "corruption has ceased to be personal. It has become institutional", the CHP leader, Deniz Baykal, said last week. And the justice minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin, a leading AKP member, caused a storm of protest when it was reported that he suggested during a campaign speech that only those city governments supportive of the central administration in Ankara could hope to receive funds from there.
The opposition said the minister was putting pressure on people to vote AKP. Mr Erdogan's party scored 41.5 per cent of the countrywide vote in the last local elections in 2004 and fared even better in the general election in 2007, when it raked in almost 47 per cent. The prime minister has said he wants the AKP share to increase further this time, but it is unclear if he can achieve that goal. The AKP can hope to receive between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, opinion polls show.
Both the AKP and the CHP have suffered setbacks in recent weeks. In Kecioren, a district of Ankara where Mr Erdogan lives when he is in the capital, the local mayor, Turgut Altinok, a member of the AKP, withdrew from the race. News reports said Mr Altinok made the decision because he had been filmed having sex with a married woman. Mr Altinok denied the reports and said he had withdrawn because he did not agree with the AKP's list of candidates in his district.
Meanwhile, a leading CHP member, Mehmet Sevigen, had to resign as deputy general secretary of his party after coming under fire for his involvement in a controversial real estate deal. The campaign has heated up even more since a decision by Turkish tax authorities rekindled a row between Mr Erdogan and the country's most powerful media tycoon, Aydin Dogan. Last month, Mr Dogan's company was ordered to pay 826 million lira (Dh1.76 billion) for alleged tax evasion.
Mr Dogan's media conglomerate, which includes the top-selling daily newspaper, Hurriyet, and the CHP said the decision was politically motivated and aimed at stifling dissent against Mr Erdogan's government. Mr Erdogan responded by saying that Mr Dogan, one of Turkey's richest men, had been used in "steering governments" from his company headquarters in Istanbul before the AKP came to power and was nervous now that his company was coming under the scrutiny of state authorities.
Last year, Mr Erdogan accused Mr Dogan of spreading lies about the AKP because he had not been allowed to go ahead with a real estate project in Istanbul. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org