By Humeyra Pamuk
ANKARA (Reuters) - Taxi driver Ramazan Aktay is quick to shrug off the corruption scandal swirling around Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, at least as long as the ruling party keeps delivering free food and coal to his working class suburb of Ankara.
Allegations of government graft, which Erdogan has cast as a campaign to destroy him by political enemies at home and abroad, have spiraled into the biggest challenge of his 11-year rule, unnerved foreign investors and raised questions about Turkey's commitment to democratic reforms.
In other countries, his opponents complain, a scandal of such proportions, with voice recordings purportedly detailing corruption among his inner circle appearing on social media on a daily basis, would bring a prime minister down, or at least force him to publicly confront the allegations head on.
Yet few in Turkey doubt Erdogan's AK Party will emerge triumphant, if weakened, from local elections on March 30, carried on a wave of support from a conservative and pious segment of society that sees him as a hero for raising living standards and breaking the hold of a secular, urban elite.
"This is a poor neighborhood. We got 50 bags of coal and then another 20 as the elections near. They distribute everything; food, clothing, detergent," Aktay, 33, said of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, standing among dilapidated homes in Ankara's Mamak district.
"Can the CHP do that?" he said of the main opposition Republican People's Party, seen by many like Aktay as the bastion of a secularist elite out of touch with Turkey's masses.
The deliveries from Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, an AKP veteran who has run the capital's municipal affairs for two decades, include coal for heating and food supplies such as honey and flour. His spokesman calls it "social aid".
Opponents say it is buying votes.
But the handouts reinforce what his supporters see as Erdogan's greatest success over the past decade - spreading wealth and involvement, and bringing services like healthcare and education, roads and cheap air travel to the poor.
It is a record that engenders fervent loyalty.
"Were you surprised?," asked Cevdet, a 37-year-old mechanic and Mamak resident, as the conversation turned to the graft scandal. "All politicians steal. At least these guys are getting some work done. If I were doing his job, I would steal too."
EVERYTHING TO FIGHT FOR
The local elections will be the first concrete test of Erdogan's popularity since anti-government protests rocked major cities last summer and the corruption scandal erupted in mid-December. They are widely seen as a referendum on his rule.
The race for Ankara is set to be among the closest, with some opinion polls predicting an AK Party loss, potentially a major embarrassment for Erdogan. Pictures of the prime minister and Gokcek hang on promotional banners across the capital.
The AK Party won about 40 percent of the municipal vote across the country in 2009, a level the party aims at least to match again. Strong showings in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir on the Aegean coast - a stronghold of the CHP - could encourage Erdogan to run for president five months later.
Ankara mayor Gokcek, an argumentative character known for fiery comments in person and on Twitter, is up against the CHP's Mansur Yavas, a mild-mannered lawyer who lost to Gokcek five years ago, when he ran for the nationalist MHP.
Yavas came third in those elections, securing almost 27 percent to Gokcek's 38.5 percent. After switching to the CHP, polls show him almost neck and neck with the incumbent, whom he dismisses as too authoritarian after two decades at the helm.
"He is running Ankara on his own, punishing everyone who doesn't vote for him," Yavas told Reuters.
A promotional video on Ankara municipality's website shows in detail how applications for Gokcek's aid packages are made, and how boxes of food and cleaning items are delivered by workers in official blue shirts.
Residents say the boxes include over two dozen items, among them flour, sugar, rice, honey and jam as well as detergents. Coal is distributed in green bags from municipality trucks.
"We don't distribute these hoping for votes. We've helped people from other parties too. We don't ask which party you vote for," a spokesman for Gokcek said, adding the program had been running throughout the mayor's tenure, with recipients chosen by income levels not party affiliation.
His handouts have not won all hearts in Ankara, which is home to communities on the poverty line but also to some of Turkey's richest people in newly built neighborhoods of gated villas.
Several hundred protested under rain in late February as Gokcek and Erdogan opened a controversial highway link that cut through the side of Ankara's forested Middle East Technical University (METU) campus, sparking weeks of protests.
Local residents were outraged at the cutting down of what they said were thousands of trees, questioning why it was done in the middle of the night under heavy police protection and during the Muslim holiday of Eid.
"If you are providing a service to your city, why are you doing it at midnight? If you're not doing anything wrong, then why the secrecy and heavy security?" said Akif Keskin, 23, student living in the upscale borough of Cankaya.
An unrepentant Gokcek has ambitious plans for the city - vainglorious in the eyes of his detractors - which echo those of Erdogan, whose plans include a third airport, billed to be one of the world's biggest, and a shipping canal to rival Panama or Suez.
"Our city has everything but tourism," Gokcek told Haberturk TV recently, adding his planned "Ankapark" amusement park would draw 10 million tourists a year and that his dramatic new "Seljuklu" city gates and clock towers, criticized for their gaudiness, would add to the city's appeal.
"I love my gates. Once they are illuminated, they will look glorious," he said.
By contrast, Yavas plans to put the brakes on Ankara's mushrooming building projects, reduce traffic congestion with new rail lines and create more green spaces. It is not just the urban elite he is appealing to.
AK Party campaign buses do not visit the poor suburb of Tuzlucayir, residents say, a district dominated by Alevis, a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government.
The district saw clashes night after night with riot police after residents protested against a plan to build a Sunni mosque next to a cemevi, an Alevi place of worship.
"Nobody votes for them here," Mustafa, 56, says of the AK Party, sitting outside his grocery shop.
"They didn't have many fans and after that stupid mosque-cemevi project, they don't stand a chance."
Gokcek's aid boxes would have little impact here.
"I vote for my honor, not for money. No matter how much money they'd give me, I'd never vote for them," said Zekiye, a 69-year old former school teacher.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Will Waterman)