Ruling party in Turkey wins broad victory
ISTANBUL: The Islamic-inspired governing party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a larger-than-expected victory in nationwide parliamentary elections on Sunday, taking close to half the total vote in a stinging rebuke to Turkey's old guard.
With nearly all the votes counted, the Justice and Development Party led by Erdogan won 46.6 percent of the vote, according to Turkish election officials, far more than the 34 percent the party garnered in the last election, in 2002.
The secular state establishment had expected that voters would punish Erdogan's party for promoting an Islamic agenda. But the main secular party, the Republican People's Party, received just 20.9 percent, compared with 19 percent in the last election. The Nationalist Action Party, which played on fears of ethnic Kurdish separatism, won 14.3 percent, officials said.
The results were a mandate for Erdogan's party, with large numbers of voters sending the message that they did not feel it is a threat to Turkish democracy. It fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution, a blank check that secular Turks fear. According to the preliminary results, Erdogan's party will have at least 340 seats in the 550-seat Parliament. The main secular party will have at least 111; the nationalists at least 71, and independents an unusually large 28 or more.
Turkey is a NATO member and a strong American ally, positions Erdogan has emphatically affirmed, and its stability is crucial in a troubled region. Its current political soul searching tries to find answers to the questions that Americans have been asking since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Can an Islamic-oriented government that is popularly elected be democratic and aligned with the West?
Speaking to supporters at his party headquarters in Ankara, Erdogan, whose party is known by its Turkish initials, AK, savored the victory. But he struck a conciliatory tone, trying to soothe divisions with secular Turks. "Our nation certified the AK Party as the central power of the society," he said in the nationally televised speech to a crowd that was waving flags and dancing.
"I'm calling on our other citizens who didn't make their choices in support of AK," he added. "I also understand the message you sent in ballot boxes. We respect your choices. We consider your different choices as the richness of your democratic life."
It was unclear how Turkey's powerful military would react, if at all. It issued a sharp warning to Erdogan's party in April, saying it had strayed from secularism. It has deposed four elected governments since Turkey was founded in 1923.
The deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party, Onur Oymen, said by telephone that he had spoken to many farmers who had complaints about the economy, and that the results were baffling. "There must be something beyond reason that make these people vote for AKP despite their disappointments," he said. "AKP has been trading on religion and manipulating people's sentiments."
Erdogan's party has pushed for European Union membership, rewriting laws to meet European standards and meeting requirements in an International Monetary Fund economic program. It has improved economic ties with Israel, and broached the topic of Turkey's problems with its Kurdish minority.
But secular, urban Turks are suspicious. The party comes from a religious, merchant class in rural Turkey, and the view of the senior leaders differs substantially from their own. . "The community that made Tayyip Erdogan who he is, is the Islamic community," said Nuri Guvenmez, a gas industry employee who had just cast his vote for the secular party in an upscale neighborhood in Istanbul. "He hasn't broken ties. He can't leave it."
Erdogan took pains to allay those fears in his speech. "We will never compromise on the basic principles of the republic," he said. "Our joy should never be the sorrow of those who do not think like us."
Secular concerns stem, in part, from a deep-rooted class divide. Traditional, rural, religious Turks have long been an underclass. One Turkish poet, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, called them "the blacks of Turkey."
But since an economic boom in the 1980s, large numbers of rural Turks moved to the cities, forming a new Islamic middle class with its own wealthy elite. That religious class, in the form of Erdogan's party, pushed to the upper reaches of the state's power in April, when it tried to capture the presidency, a post that is at the very heart of the network of judges, military officers and bureaucrats that form the state elite. The party proposed Turkey's affable foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a head scarf.
In an affluent neighborhood in Istanbul on Sunday, Semra Kara, 36, a businesswoman, said it was the image of the wives of political leaders in head scarves that she most disliked. "I don't believe the look of the Turkish government reflects the look of a democracy," she said, standing in a strapless dress on a tree-lined street after voting. "People are aware of the fact that the country is moving backward, not forward."
But many Turkish voters seemed to reject that assessment. "For me, we have to be democratic, I don't care what his wife wears," said Latif Ererli, a 38-year old textile worker who said he had cast his vote for the AK Party in sympathy for the episode over the presidency this spring.
In his speech, Erdogan promised to continue the changes his party had begun after it was first elected in 2002. Foreign policy will remain unchanged. "Standing firm without confrontation, winning friends rather than producing enemies will be again our determining principles," he said.
Another distinguishing feature of the vote was the broad array of independent candidates, many of them Kurds, who will enter Parliament for the first time in more than a decade. Turkey has been fighting a war with Kurdish separatists in the southeastern part of the country for more than 20 years, and ejected representatives of Kurdish political parties from Parliament in the mid-1990s after one tried to speak Kurdish in Parliament.
In the heavily Kurdish neighborhood of Gazi Osman Pasa, men served tea and handed out yogurt as Kurdish families streamed through the doors of a polling place. "When we go anywhere, people tell us to speak in Turkish," Selahat Turgay, a 43-year-old mother whose fringed scarf framed her face, said in Kurdish. "I want to speak my language."
For many who voted for Erdogan's party, the election was a referendum on the party's economic performance. "I'm not that conservative, but I voted for them because of the economy," said Refik Akin, a 27-year-old catering company worker. "We're happy with the situation."
Erdogan called for restraint from his supporters. "Beware that your happiness — I want you to follow this very carefully — does not overshadow the happiness of others," he said. "I'm sure all members of AKP will welcome this success maturely and in a dignified manner."