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Islamic party romps to win in Turkey

Associated Press

Ankara — After an overwhelming victory in Turkey’s election, a party with Islamic roots pledged to maintain the nation’s pro-Western stance — an attempt to ease fears that the crucial U.S. ally and NATO member would undergo a radical shift toward Islam.

The Justice and Development Party won a parliamentary majority in Sunday’s election — the first time in 15 years that any party has been in a position to govern alone — largely because of voter fury over a devastated economy.

The vote came as the United States sought to showcase Turkey as an example of a secular, democratic country that is overwhelmingly Muslim, but which has cast its future with the West.

Turkey, a NATO-member country, lets U.S. warplanes base at its southern Incirlik air base, which was a staging point for attacks on Iraq during the Persian Gulf war. Ankara’s support would be key to any U.S. operation against Iraq. Washington also strongly supported Turkey’s push to take over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes a war against Iraq unless it is approved by the United Nations — a similar attitude to that of outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.

“We do not want war, blood, tears and dead in our region,” Mr. Erdogan said, adding that Turkey will honour UN decisions.

The victory could worry Turkey’s powerful and firmly secular military, which in the past forced a pro-Islamic government from power. The victorious Justice party stressed that it does not want confrontation.

“At every opportunity, I have said that we are not a party based on religion,” Mr. Erdogan told the Milliyet newspaper in an interview published Monday. “We received votes from all sections of society and from all parties. That was our intention. No one can call us a religious party or a party based on religion.”

At a victory celebration at party headquarters, one official called on supporters not to shout religious slogans such as “Allah is Great!”

With all ballots counted, Mr. Erdogan’s party had 34-per-cent support, while the centre-left Republican People’s Party had 19 per cent, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported. Turnout was 79 per cent, with eligible voters liable to a $3 fine if they did not cast ballots.

Other parties remained below the 10-per-cent threshold needed to enter parliament. Projections by Anatolia showed the Justice party taking 363 of the 550 seats — enough to rule without a coalition — and the Republicans winning 178. The remaining nine seats went to independents.

This nation of 68 million straddles East and West, Islam and secularism. Many Turks fear the Justice party may eat away at the country’s strict secular laws, imposed with vehemence by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern-day Turkey.

Republican Party leader Deniz Baykal refused Monday to describe Mr. Erdogan’s party as a threat to Turkey’s secular system. “Such accusations would put the country into distress,” he said. “We have to act in good faith. But I will retain caution.”

Justice sought to calm the public and the markets with pledges of support for secularism, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and an International Monetary Fund austerity program.

Markets appeared relieved as shares rose 5.8 per cent on Istanbul’s benchmark index in afternoon trading.

Ayse Ayata, a political scientist at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, suggested that the Justice party might edge toward religious-based changes if Turks do not see quick economic improvements, but she said policy changes would be domestic, not international.

“The change will have an impact on our lives, not in Turkey’s relationship vis-à-vis the West or the world,” she said.

In Brussels, the European Union’s executive Commission said it expects “Turkey to confirm its commitments” to comply with EU membership criteria. The EC said it “will continue to monitor closely the progress made” in getting Turkey ready for membership talks.

Turkey is one of 13 candidate EU nations. It is the only Muslim country seeking membership and the only one waiting for a date to begin entry negotiations.

The 15 EU governments have so far refused to set such a date, arguing that Turkey has not gone far enough in consolidating human rights and economic and financial reforms.

It was not clear if Mr. Erdogan would seek to change Turkey’s close military ties with Israel. Many Turks sympathize strongly with the Palestinians, and have called on previous governments to diminish ties with Israel.

Although Mr. Erdogan leads the Justice party, he has been barred from standing as a candidate because of a jail sentence he served in 1999 for publicly reading a poem that a court deemed anti-secular.

His party will meet Tuesday and Wednesday to nominate a prime minister. They would have to change the constitution to allow Mr. Erdogan to take the post, and the party is four short of the 367 seats necessary for such a move.

The elections also marked the ouster of Turkey’s longtime dominant political class. The party of outgoing Mr. Ecevit won only 1 per cent of the vote, and his coalition partners failed to enter parliament.

Mr. Ecevit was to meet President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on Monday afternoon, probably to hand in his resignation. He was expected to carry on as caretaker until a new government is in place.

Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, a former premier and leader of the Motherland Party, announced that he was dropping out of politics after his group won just 5.1 per cent.

Another former prime minister, Tansu Ciller — Turkey’s first female head of government — announced Monday that she planned to step down as leader of the centre-right True Path Party after it won about 9 per cent.

Republican party leader Baykal said there was no surprise in the results. “Two million people lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of stores shut down, people’s debts increased, and they could no longer look at the future with hope,” he said. “There had been great corruption and a collapse of economic and ethical values.”

The last time a leader from the Islamic movement led a government was in 1996, when Necmettin Erbakan became the first pro-Islamic prime minister.

He was forced from government in 1997 under strong pressure from the military. At the time, Mr. Erdogan was a member of Mr. Erbakan’s party and mayor of Istanbul.

Metin Heper, a political science professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, said he expected Mr. Erdogan’s relations with the influential military to be “rather smooth.”

“He won’t challenge the military,” Mr. Heper said. “He’s a very intelligent person. He knows what happened to religious-oriented parties in the past.”

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