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Religion at heart of Turkish vote

Devout Muslims say they are marginalized in public life, while secularists fear an erosion of freedoms.

July 21, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ALANYA, TURKEY — Vacationing just a few miles apart on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, the economist from Istanbul and the engineer from Ankara could hardly have more divergent views of a nationwide vote Sunday that is expected to return the ruling party to power -- and intensify an ongoing battle over the role of Islam in public life.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, is "just too Muslim, too radical," said Reha Guner, drinking tea in a cafe just off a crowded beach where European tourists sunbathed topless and beer flowed freely. "They want to hold the country back. That's why these elections are so important."

Down the road, at a resort that caters to religiously observant families, engineer Ahmet Alintuglu said pious Muslims like him often feel marginalized in a republic whose 8-decade-old founding principles mandate a strict separation of Islam and government.

"We're a so-called Muslim country, but we are treated like second-class citizens, even when we are on vacation," Alintuglu said. He and his family, he complained, were forced to pay premium prices to secure the hotel amenities they wanted: gender-segregated swimming pools, modest dress in public areas and a ban on alcohol.

Though parting ways at the ballot box, Guner and Alintuglu had this much in common: Like tens of thousands of Turks, each was cutting short the traditional summer holiday to return home to vote in the parliamentary elections, which are shaping up as among the country's most divisive in recent memory.

The Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is expected to garner the largest share of seats, but not enough to render it immune to challenges by the secular-minded opposition.

Picking a president

That could set the stage for months of fresh political warfare over parliament's election of the country's president. The AKP is determined to claim the post, although it has always been held by a resolute secularist.

In April, the AKP put forth as its presidential candidate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a sophisticated, English-speaking diplomat whose wife wears the head scarf that connotes a devout Muslim woman.

For secularists, the notion of such a first lady proved a psychological tripwire. Huge protest rallies were held, the military threatened to step in to preserve secular principles, and the Constitutional Court, citing a technicality, threw out a parliamentary vote that favored Gul.

The standoff left both sides furious, with AKP supporters accusing the secular establishment of acting undemocratically, and secular parties insisting that the AKP, despite a record focused on successfully fostering economic growth, had revealed its hidden Islamist agenda.

The AKP managed to push through a package of constitutional reforms that would change the means of picking the president to a popular vote, but outgoing President Necdet Sezer ensured that the package itself must be put to a referendum. That will not take place until October, well after the new parliament's one-month deadline for electing a new president to a seven-year term.

For a campaign taking place against such an acrimonious backdrop, the electioneering has been almost incongruously peaceful. On almost every major boulevard, colorful party banners flutter like sheets on clotheslines. Sound trucks ply the streets, playing scratchy-sounding versions of pop tunes appropriated as campaign jingles, with rewritten lyrics that blandly extol the virtues of the Turkish nation.

At its campaign rallies, though, the AKP has been tapping into the simmering anger of supporters who believe the party was robbed of the presidency. "The Cankaya will be ours!" the crowd shouted at a recent rally in Istanbul, referring to Turkey's presidential palace.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his voice hoarsened by back-to-back appearances in the final week of campaigning, assured backers of imminent victory. "We'll bury them at the ballot box," he told a cheering, flag-waving throng.

Polls suggest that the AKP will secure about 45% of the vote, twice as much as its nearest rival and enough to secure a comfortable majority in the 550-member parliament, given how seats are apportioned. Many analysts, however, say the party's appeal is due as much to the booming economy as to ideological considerations.

During its five years in power, the AKP has presided over the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the country's recent history, with per capita income more than doubling and rampant inflation largely tamed. That growth spurt has engendered a phenomenon previously unseen in Turkey: a religiously devout middle class prepared to exercise its political clout as well as flex its economic muscle.

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