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Pro-Islam Party Stuns Turkey, Wins Key Votes

March 30, 1994|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL — Cries of "Allahu Akbar!"--God is great!--greeted the news Tuesday that the pro-Islamic Welfare Party had captured the mayor's seat in Ankara, Turkey's capital, in one of a series of municipal election victories that have shaken the 70-year-old republic to its secular roots.

Shocked Turks have been glued to television sets since Sunday's election, watching in disbelief as this nation's electoral system handed more than one-third of Turkey's provincial centers to the Islamists, including the biggest city and financial center, Istanbul.

As the leftist vote collapsed, the Islamists did unexpectedly well among recent arrivals in big cities; they appear to have been fed up with a corrupt political Establishment that has failed to manage Turkey's inflation and mounting economic crisis.

But more than 80% of Turks did not vote for the Welfare Party, and many expressed great worry about the intrusion of religion in politics.

The Islamists, for example, challenge Turkey's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its application to join the European Union and the very basis of the republic set up in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk along modernizing, Western, secular lines.

But more sage commentators are urging Turks and their Western allies not to panic or to think that this conservative, Sunni Muslim country will go down the Islamic revolutionary path chosen by its neighbors in Shiite Muslim Iran.

The election "is an earthquake shaking republican Turkey. But it should not be exaggerated. The Welfare did not present itself as a party advocating the introduction of Islamic Sharia law," wrote Gungor Mengi, chief commentator of the newspaper Sabah.

Analysts also noted that Turkish mayors are not as powerful as many are in the United States. They have no control, for example, over education, police or liquor licensing laws.

In the bigger picture, the polls have strengthened Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's position, showing that her conservative True Path Party is Turkey's biggest, with 22% voter support. Turkey's first female prime minister and her 9-month-old coalition government with the Social Democrats can probably now continue in power until the next parliamentary elections in 1996.

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