ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey is holding local elections on Sunday that are seen as a test of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularity amid a sharp economic downturn. Erdogan, who has not lost a vote since his party came to power in 2002, has cast the elections as a "matter of national survival" and has been campaigning for a strong mandate that he says would come as slap to Turkey's enemies. If his party sweeps municipal seats, Erdogan's dominance would be further solidified with his grip on the presidency, parliament and local administration. But a loss in major cities could signal a crack in his party's long hold on power.
Here's a look at the elections:
More than 57 million people will cast votes at some 200,000 ballot boxes across the country to elect the mayors for 30 large metropolitan cities, 51 provincial capitals and 922 districts. They will also vote to elect local assembly representatives as well as tens of thousands of neighborhood or village administrators, called "muhtar."
Polls are open between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. (0400 to 1300 GMT) in eastern provinces and between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (0500 to 1400 GMT) in the west.
The last local elections were held in 2014 and since then Turkey has held five other votes.
Political parties have continued alliances forged for last year's historic presidential and parliamentary elections, opting to support each other's candidates in metropolitan cities and provincial capitals.
Erdogan's Justice and Development Party is joined by the Nationalist Movement Party in the "People's Alliance" along with the small, far-right Great Unity Party. Erdogan's party is running for top mayor seats in 27 metropolitan cities and the nationalists in three, while allying in 21 other provinces.
The main opposition is the "Nation Alliance," consisting of the secular Republican People's Party and the nationalist Good Party. They are coordinating in 50 provinces.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, the second largest opposition group in parliament, is leading a "Kurdish election alliance" with candidates for municipalities in Turkey's southeast. It is strategically sitting out critical races in Turkey's major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, aiming to send HDP votes to the Republican People's Party to help challenge Erdogan.
The elections are being held as Turkey enters a recession, along with rising food prices and high unemployment. Erdogan has been campaigning by stirring nationalist and religious sentiments at multiple rallies every day, in what critics say is an attempt to distract attention away from economic woes.
THE CAPITAL CITY
The biggest race is for the capital, Ankara. Opinion polls suggest the city could be won by Mansur Yavas, the candidate of the People's Alliance, after being held by Erdogan's party and its predecessor Islam-oriented party for a quarter of a century. As the race has heated up, the ruling party has accused the 63-year old lawyer of forgery and tax evasion. Yavas says he is the victim of a smear campaign by the Nation Alliance desperate to hold on to Ankara.
Like previous elections, the campaign has been unbalanced in favor of Erdogan. Turkish broadcasters carry all Erdogan speeches live but leave little to no room to the opposition. In the first two weeks of March, state broadcaster TRT aired the People's Alliance campaign for some 55 hours, the Nation Alliance for some 10 hours and covered the pro-Kurdish party critically for 98 minutes, according to research by an opposition member of Turkey's media watchdog.