ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday's bitterly-contested local elections would affirm his legitimacy as he battles graft allegations and security leaks he blames on "traitors" within the Turkish state.
The municipal elections have become a crisis referendum on Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AK Party after weeks of scandal he has cast as a "dirty campaign" of espionage to implicate him in corruption and topple him.
Counting began after polls closed peacefully in most parts of the country, although clashes over council positions killed eight in two separate shoot-outs in villages in the southeastern provinces of Hatay and Sanliurfa near the Syrian border.
Official results are expected to start being announced from around 21:00 (1900 GMT).
"Today it is what the people say which matters rather than what was said in the city squares," Erdogan told reporters as he voted in Istanbul, his supporters chanting "Turkey is proud of you" outside the polling station.
"Once the ballot boxes are opened the rest is only footnotes to history," he said.
Erdogan has crisscrossed the nation of 77 million during weeks of hectic campaigning to rally his conservative core voters, in a measure of how seriously he takes his party's first test at the ballot box since anti-government protests last summer and the eruption of the corruption scandal in December.
"The prime minister is portraying this election as a trial for graft," said Fatih Altayli, former editor-in-chief of the mainstream Haberturk newspaper, who has decried a lack of media freedom under Erdogan and who quit his job on Saturday.
"You can do this once or twice, but if you constantly ignore a certain part of society by using your political prowess, problems arise," he told Reuters.
The level of support for Erdogan will be crucial for the future cohesion of his party and his own decision on whether to run for the presidency in August. The races are likely to be particularly close in the capital Ankara and commercial hub Istanbul. The loss of either would be a major embarrassment.
The AKP, which swept to power in 2002 on a platform of eradicating the corruption that blights Turkish life, hopes to equal or better its 2009 vote of 38.8 percent and markets have steadied this week in expectation of such a result.
A vote of less than 36 percent, considered unlikely, would be a huge blow for Erdogan and unleash AKP power struggles. A vote above 45 percent, some fear, could feed his authoritarian instincts, which have already seen bans on Twitter (TWTR.N) and YouTube (GOOG.O) in recent days, and herald a period of harsh reckoning with opponents in politics and state bodies.
Erdogan has purged thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors since anti-graft raids in December targeting businessmen close to him and sons of ministers. He blames the raids on U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, an ex-ally, who he says is using supporters in the police to try to topple the government.
"They are all traitors," Erdogan said of his opponents at a rally in Istanbul on the eve of the vote. "Let them do what they want. Go to the ballot box tomorrow and teach all of them a lesson ... Let's give them an Ottoman slap."
The AKP's main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), portrays Erdogan as a corrupt dictator ready to hang on to power by any means. Capture of the capital Ankara or Istanbul would allow them to claim some form of victory.
"These were supposed to be local elections but in the last few weeks they've sort of become general elections," said Efe Yamac Yarbasi, a teaching assistant voting in Ankara.
"I think Erdogan will remain the most powerful politician, but he will be damaged. Up until now each time his percentage has been rising, but from today, I think it will start to fall."
Erdogan formed AK in 2001, attracting nationalists and centre-right economic reformers as well as religious conservatives who form his base. Since his 2011 poll victory he has in his statements moved more towards these core supporters.
The graft scandal, also involving anonymous Internet postings of tapped state communications implicating Erdogan in corrupt actions he denies, was all but eclipsed in recent days by the leaking of a recording of a top-level security meeting.
In the recording, the intelligence chief, foreign minister and military commanders discuss possible armed intervention in neighbouring Syria's civil war. A senior government official described the leak as one of the biggest crises in modern Turkey's history, threatening further sensitive disclosures.
Officials suggest Gulen's Hizmet network released the recording, giving an alarming sense in Ankara that government has only tentative control of state bodies and part of the security apparatus while power struggles play out.
Hizmet denies orchestrating the leak scandal and manoeuvring to control the state apparatus, but those close to the network say they fear a heavy crackdown after the elections.
(Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir, Dasha Afanasieva in Hatay, Daren Butler, Seda Sezer, Ece Toksabay, Can Sezer and Alexandra Hudson in Istanbul and Jonny Hogg and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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