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Ruling party in Turkey wins big

Poll returns fuel fears that the Islamist-rooted AKP will seek to undermine the nation's secular principles.

July 23, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Voters Sunday handed Turkey's Islamist-influenced ruling party a decisive victory in parliamentary elections, rewarding it for stewardship of the country's robust economy but raising the specter of bitter new quarrels over the feared erosion of Turkey's secular traditions.

With 99% of the votes counted, the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, garnered about 47% of the vote, according to unofficial results -- a substantial increase over the 34% it received in elections five years ago when it came to power.

The vote could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey's engagement with the West, including its drive to become the first Muslim-dominated country to join the European Union. Though secularist parties have been cool to that idea, the AKP has vowed to press ahead with the bid despite early rebuffs.

"With this vote, Turkey said no to insularity, no to closing in on itself," said Cengiz Candar, a prominent political columnist.

The moderate and officially secular country, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is viewed as a strategic bridge to a Muslim world increasingly mistrustful of the West, particularly the United States. Successive Turkish governments have maintained close ties with Muslim neighbors even while pursuing divergent policies, such as a cordial relationship with Israel.

The election results were a crushing defeat for Turkey's secular-minded main opposition party, which got about 20% of the vote. Still, because of rules governing the allocation of parliamentary seats, the opposition will have some ability to stymie AKP initiatives, including the party's drive to have one of its own elected president -- the same battle that triggered these early elections.

The AKP's resounding victory could fuel tensions with Turkey's powerful military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular system put in place 84 years ago by the country's founder, Kemal Ataturk.

The army, which has dislodged four Turkish governments in the last half-century, has made none-too-subtle threats to intervene if it believes the ruling party is acting in conflict with the secular principles enshrined in the constitution.

Perhaps mindful of those tensions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a reconciliatory tone in his victory speech, paying homage to Ataturk and offering assurances that his party's agenda was firmly centered on the pro-business, free-market policies that have generated unprecedented economic prosperity since it took power.

"We would like to see Turkey as one, as united," the 53-year-old leader said as supporters cheered and waved the national flag. "Our goal is to realize the aim of Ataturk, to carry our country to the levels of modern civilization."

Revelers took to the streets near AKP headquarters in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, setting off fireworks and handing out sweets.

During the party's tenure, rampant inflation has been tamed, annual growth has run to 7%, unemployment has leveled off and the national currency has strengthened. The boom has brought a middle-class lifestyle within reach of millions of Turks, including many in the party's religiously conservative core constituency.

"It's a fact that there are more cars on the roads, more consumption, more buying in the supermarkets -- the lively economy has given confidence to the people," said Ertugrul Ozkok, editor in chief of the mainstream newspaper Hurriyet. "That was reflected in this vote."

To some observers, the elections marked another milestone in the development of Turkey's own brand of political Islam, a democratic model unlike others in the Muslim world. The AKP is an offshoot of a more rigorously Islamist party, but Erdogan and other senior party figures have made little effort to bring their personal piety into the public sphere.

But that reticence has done little to quell secularists' wariness. Many are convinced the AKP harbors a hidden Islamist agenda, one that is more likely now to make inroads into public policy, perhaps in the form of relaxed restrictions on Islamic dress at public universities and among civil servants.

"We see the danger of Sharia [Islamic law] and fundamentalism," said Hatice Ozbay, a volunteer for the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the main secular group. "We will keep on fighting that."

The AKP alarmed secularists early in its tenure with a movement to criminalize adultery and ease restrictions on wearing head scarves. It has said it has no plans to revive such legislation, but secularists fear the overwhelming election mandate will leave the party feeling obliged to make some gesture to its devout Muslim constituents.

The AKP worked hard to broaden its appeal, revamping its party list to remove religious hard-liners and fielding several liberal secular candidates.

"People embraced democracy," said Zeynep Dagi, a female academic who won election on the AKP ticket. "And they looked at the AKP's performance."

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