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Turks back Islamic-oriented party

New fears seen over erosion of secular tradition

Supporters of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party celebrated the victory in Istanbul yesterday. Supporters of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party celebrated the victory in Istanbul yesterday. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

ISTANBUL -- Turkish voters handed the Islamist-influenced ruling party a decisive victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, rewarding it for stewardship of Turkey's robust economy but raising the specter of new disputes over the feared erosion of the country's secular traditions.

With more than 99 percent of votes counted, television news channels were projecting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party -- known by its Turkish initials AKP -- would win 341 of the 550 seats. The total is down from 351 in the outgoing Parliament but more than some observers were expecting.

Two secular parties, the Republican People's Party and the Nationalist Action Party, won 112 seats and 70 seats, respectively. Pro-Kurdish Independents won 24 of the remaining 27 seats.

The results could influence Turkey's drive to become the first Muslim-dominated country to join the European Union. While secularist parties have been cool to the idea, the AKP has vowed to press ahead with that 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.

Moderate and officially secular Turkey, a NATO member, is viewed as a strategic bridge to a Muslim world that is increasingly mistrustful of the West. 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 are a crushing defeat for Turkey's secular opposition parties. But because of rules governing the allocation of parliamentary seats, the opposition still will be able to stymie the ruling party's initiatives, including the AKP's drive to have one of its own elected as the country's president -- the same battle that triggered the early elections.

Turkey's powerful military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular system put in place 84 years ago, 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, Erdogan sought to strike a reconciliatory tone in his victory speech yesterday, paying homage to Kemal Ataturk, the republic's founder, and offering assurances that the party's agenda was centered on the pro-business, free-market policies that have generated unprecedented economic prosperity since it took office.

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

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

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

"The lively economy has given confidence to the people," said Ertugrul Ozkok, the editor in chief of Hurriyet, a mainstream newspaper. "That was reflected in this vote."

To many observers, the election marked another milestone in the development of Turkey's brand of political Islam. The AKP is an offshoot of a more rigorously Islamist party, but Erdogan and other senior party figures have made little effort to bring personal piety into the public sphere.

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

Of the 14 parties that contested the elections, only three reached the vote threshold of 10 percent required to enter Parliament.

Lawmakers are to choose a new president within 30 days. With the opposition still stung by defeat, that could result in the same deadlock that occurred in April, when the AKP put forth Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate.

Gul's wife wears a Muslim head scarf, and secularists were appalled by the notion of a first lady in Islamic dress. Some of the largest protests in the country's modern history were held to decry Gul's candidacy.

After hints of intervention by the military, and an unfavorable ruling by the secular-dominated Constitutional Court, the AKP abandoned the bid to elect Gul and called early national balloting. But the party says it is determined to claim the presidency, a post that many secularists regard as their birthright, with a bloodline leading back to Ataturk.

A new element in the parliamentary mix is the election of the 24 Kurdish candidates, who ran as independents to avoid having to reach the vote threshold for parties. Their accession into Parliament, the first by Kurds in more than 15 years, comes as the government weighs an incursion into northern Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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