Clouds gather for ruling AKP gov’t ahead of polls .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} ANKARA - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party won wide praise from Turkey's liberal circles and financial markets for implementing bold EU-friendly reforms during their first term in office. But now rapidly losing the support of liberals and business leaders, both Erdoğan and his party are currently facing heavy critisism

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is rapidly losing the support of liberals and business leaders who once saw it as an engine of reform, confronting it with serious challenges three months before municipal elections.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP won wide praise in Turkey's liberal circles and financial markets for implementing bold EU-friendly reforms during their first term in office, in what many dubbed a "silent revolution". But with those reforms halted and graft allegations swirling, critics accuse Erdoğan of becoming increasingly autocratic and say the AK Party today resembles the same establishment parties it swept out of power six years ago.

With the $700 billion economy slowing, those critics -- in both the liberal middle classes and the moderate Islamic press -- see a danger that painfully realized gains will be squandered in a country facing serious social and economic difficulties on its desired path towards joining the European Union. Markets are grumbling over what they see as dithering in signing a deal with the IMF to shield Turkey from the global economic crisis.

Summing up a climate of disillusionment that has extended to traditional pro-AKP constituencies in recent months, a commentator in the religious-leaning Zaman newspaper wrote recently of Erdoğan: "He came like Obama, but turned into some sort of Bush."

The AKP, which emerged at 2002 polls as a coalition of religious, center-right and nationalist elements, is still the only viable party in the face of a discredited opposition, political analysts say.

But municipal elections in March will test its strength. Erdoğan is still the most popular politician by far, but some opinion polls point to an erosion in support. Growing discontent with political forces could lead to the emergence of new parties, triggering defections.

"The AKP broke many taboos with its reforms in its first years of government between 2002 and 2004, but it has undergone a transformation and has stopped being the party of reform. The problem now is that Turkey's rosy economic ride is over and we have big problems," said Cengiz Aktar, professor at Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University and a liberal commentator.

"Turkey's political center can transform the oddest party into a mainstream party very quickly," Aktar said.

Drawing support from the traditionally excluded Anatolian masses, the AK Party swept to power as established 'secularist' parties were crushed by a public tired of personal and factional infighting, economic mismanagement, and corruption. The AKP’s pro-EU profile also attracted liberals, intellectuals and business leaders, who see the EU as a force to resolve the historic contradictions of an autocratic state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after World War One.

Miscalculations by Erdoğan - particularly his attempt to end a ban on Muslim headscarves at universities - as well as allegations of corruption and foot-dragging over EU reforms, dissipated any momentum the AK Party won after securing re-election with an increased majority in last July's polls.

The abrupt end of Turkey's economic bonanza and what critics call Erdoğan's increasingly irascible mood have led commentators to ask themselves if his expiry date has come. He has attacked the media for running stories of alleged corruption and has rescinded the accreditation of journalists who have criticized his leadership style.

"The AKP, which was able to gain the support of nearly half of voters in the general election last year, finds itself besieged from all directions," wrote Sahin Alday in a recent opinion piece titled: "Beginning of the end for AKP power?"

The AK Party defends Erdoğan and calls such talk unfounded.