ISTANBUL (AFP) — Turkish citizens voted Sunday in local elections seen as a referendum on the rule of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan after turbulent months of mass protests, corruption scandals and Internet blocks.

The recent turmoil — fought out in fierce street clashes and explosive online leaks — has left the country of 75 million deeply polarised between Erdogan’s Muslim conservative supporters and a secular political camp.

The premier’s heavy-handed response, including blocks on Twitter and YouTube, has detracted from his much-lauded 11-year record of driving an economic boom and transforming Turkey into an emerging global player.

One Erdogan supporter casting her vote was Nurcan Caliskan, 38, an Istanbul mother of three wearing a headscarf, who said “we’re here to show with our votes that Erdogan can weather all kinds of attacks.”

She dismissed graft charges against Erdogan allies and relatives and praised him for modernizing Turkey, saying, “Don’t you see all the hospitals, schools and roads he has built?”

An opposition supporter charged meanwhile that Erdogan “is damaging democracy and freedom of expression”.

“If he really cared about the Turkish people, he would have resigned a long time ago,” added Gonca Gurses, 28, a financial director voting in Istanbul’s upmarket Sisli district.

More than 50 million eligible voters were set to cast their ballots through the day in mayoral and municipal polls nationwide, from remote Anatolian villages to the capital Ankara and the megacity of Istanbul.

The outcome will be a crucial popularity test for Erdogan, who has been eyeing a run for the presidency in August, the first time voters directly elect the head of state.

In much of the country, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) commands solid support. Admiring crowds have loudly cheered the man they dub “the sultan” during his marathon of campaign speeches.

“I don’t think he has taken a sinful bite,” said Istanbul mother Caliskan, referring to the claims of bribes and kickbacks. “Even if he did, I believe he has done it for the good of his country.”

The current crisis started with a police crackdown last June against protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park which sparked off weeks of street clashes that left eight people dead and thousands wounded.

The damaging online leaks followed in December, with wide-ranging bribery and sleaze claims against Erdogan’s inner circle going viral in the youthful country, leading to several cabinet resignations.

The government’s response — especially blocking Twitter and YouTube — has sparked a chorus of condemnation from Turkey’s NATO allies and international human rights groups.

Erdogan has accused Fethullah Gulen, an influential US-based Muslim cleric, and his loyalists in the Turkish police and justice system, of being behind the leaks and plotting his downfall.

The spiraling crisis has sent down the Turkish lira and stock market and rattled investors’ faith in the Muslim democracy that was long hailed as a model for post-Arab Spring countries.

Turkey’s deepening political faultines were expressed in bold print and commentary in the press on voting day.

“Let freedom win,” headlined the daily Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with Erdogan’s arch-foe Gulen, while the liberal Hurriyet daily urged change and cheered: “Luckily, there’s the ballot box.”

The opposition Cumhuriyet daily mocked a dismissive comment by Erdogan that roughly translates to “Twitter, schmitter.”

It emblazoned its frontpage with the same jargon word, in the style of the US site’s blue corporate logo, and defiantly printed Turkish tweets from the micro-blogging network on its frontpage.

The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper meanwhile urged an electoral response to the “dirty hands,” referring to Gulen followers.

With memories fresh in Turkey of riot police using tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets against demonstrators, many were nervous that contested vote results could again bring tensions to the boil.

“The damage has been great and won’t be fixed for some time to come,” said Brent Sasley, a Middle East expert at the University of Texas. “The politics of fear and conspiracy have been embedded even more deeply into Turkish politics.”