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Vote of Confidence for Turkish Ruling Party

The prime minister declares victory after his party gains support in local elections as he pushes ahead with EU membership plan.

March 29, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's ruling conservative party won a strong mandate in local elections Sunday that could strengthen its hand in taking the largely Muslim country into the European Union and pushing for a settlement on the divided island of Cyprus.

The Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, retained control of key municipalities including the capital, Ankara, and the country's largest city, Istanbul, while registering gains in regions long dominated by left-wing groups.

"Turkey has voted once again for stability and progress," said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, after claiming victory at the party's headquarters here.

Looking relaxed in a bright checkered shirt and tailored linen jacket, Erdogan assured Turks that "this victory will not cause us to lose our heads. To the contrary, it will increase our sense of responsibility."

Erdogan has thrown his weight behind the latest United Nations plan to reunite the island of Cyprus, which is divided between Turkish and Greek factions. European leaders have made it clear they will not consider Turkish membership in the EU unless Ankara helps resolve the dispute over Cyprus.

Erdogan was expected to fly to Switzerland today to join four-way reunification talks involving Turkey, Greece and the Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Western diplomats here say Sunday's result will probably reinforce Erdogan's position against hawks within Turkey's powerful armed forces, who oppose the U.N. plan.

At the national level, Erdogan has pushed through a raft of economic and social reforms aimed at opening membership talks with the EU. The measures approved by the AKP-dominated parliament include easing bans on the Kurdish language and stiffening penalties for torture.

AKP legislators are finalizing draft laws that would end discrimination against homosexuals, scrap reduced sentences for "honor" killings of women accused of besmirching their families' reputations, and abolish special security courts in which thousands of dissidents have been prosecuted for expressing anti-establishment views.

The proposed changes may have helped the AKP snatch mayoral seats in five major predominantly Kurdish cities held by the country's largest pro-Kurdish group, the Democratic People's Party, or Dehap.

Unofficial results Sunday showed the AKP winning more than 40% of the vote across the country. The main opposition pro-secular Republican People's Party trailed well behind with 20%.

Formed by a group of former Islamists three years ago, the AKP swept to power in November 2002 parliamentary polls with 34% of the vote, giving this country of 68 million people its first single-party government in 15 years and ushering a period of political and economic stability.

Sunday's victory confirmed voters' support for leaders of AKP-run municipalities. Unlike their pro-secular rivals, AKP mayors have been largely untainted by corruption and have provided free food and fuel for thousands of slum dwellers.

Erdogan rose to national prominence in the 1990s as the mayor of Istanbul who brought water to the drought-stricken city of 10 million.

Fears that the party might steer the country away from the pro-Western and secular policies introduced by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, have proved groundless so far. Seeking to quell such concerns, Erdogan did not field any female candidates who wore the Islamic-style head scarf, and in a gesture to non-Muslim Turks, the AKP ran three ethnic Armenians in Istanbul.

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