ANKARA, March 8 (Xinhua) -- With Turkey's local elections less than a month away, the country's economic hardships are likely to determine President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's success as the nation's strong leader.
Erdogan, 65, has never lost an election since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in late 2002, and he does not intend to make a precedent at the mayoral elections planned for March 31 across Turkey.
The Turkish strongman has consolidated his power on a sustained growth that increased living standards of the popular and middle classes, his party's grassroots.
A currency crisis last summer over tensions with NATO ally the United States has decimated the Turkish lira by 30 percent and fueled a high inflation and unemployment rate, which will be an important feature in voter choices at the polls.
According to official data announced on Monday, the inflation rate eased slightly in February, down to 19.6 percent from 20.3 percent in January, nevertheless food price increases remained the biggest driver of soaring prices in essential goods.
"When people have an empty belly, they grow disenchanted from the government. This is a general rule," said Erhan Bozkurt, owner of a perfumery booth in downtown Ankara's Kizilay, the Turkish capital's commercial heartland.
"Prices went skyrocketing, and measures and efforts made by the government have had limited impact on the market. Consumers only buy the foremost essential goods, such as food, and forget about the rest," he said to Xinhua, explaining that his sales dropped considerably.
Two separate alliances will compete in the elections -- the "People's Alliance" between the AKP and its nationalist ally, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the "Nation Alliance" between the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and IYI (Good) Party.
"It's a clear indication that economic problems are so huge that even local mayoral candidates -- from both the opposition and the government -- cannot turn a deaf ear to them," said political analyst and journalist Serkan Demirtas to Xinhua.
"In the light of all these and with the fact that there are still a few weeks to go to polls, it's pretty sure we will observe a more aggressive political campaign by both alliances," he said.
Economic hardships have seemingly eroded some of the support for the AKP ahead of the elections, according to surveys.
Recently published polls put opposition candidate for mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavas 3 percentage points ahead of his AKP rival, Mehmet Ozhaseki, while in Istanbul, the country's biggest city and economic hub, the opposition's Ekrem Imamoglu has narrowed the lead of the AKP's Binali Yildirim to 1.5 points.
These two major cities are controlled since nearly two decades by the AKP. And Erdogan himself was mayor of Istanbul in the 90s before he founded the AKP.
With a persistent inflation, the government this month launched the direct sale of cheap vegetables and other essential goods in temporary state-run markets in Istanbul, Ankara and some other cities to bring prices down. Yet state-regulated sales had a modest impact on inflation figures.
Unemployment also rose to 12.3 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 10.3 percent a year earlier, especially hurting the massive young working force in the 82 million populated G20 nation.
Erdogan won elections last year to a newly powerful presidency and is still very popular but the municipalities are critical for the AKP's hold on power, turning the local elections into a test of popularity for the government.
Erdogan has put his weight on the election campaign and is touring relentlessly the country addressing his supporters during daily rallies.
The AKP supporter base has been very loyal to its leader, and argued that Turkey's economic ordeal will not change this fact.
"I love my leader. He is the leader of the century," said Songul Demiralp, a homemaker aged 33, in a grocery store. She admitted that Turkey was currently witnessing hardships, but "Erdogan's leadership will bring us to safe waters. I believe in him."