Turkey: Islamic Party Wins in Landslide

ISTANBUL - Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its roots in Islam but professing to be secular and conservative, won a landslide victory in general elections Sunday. What it does in coming days will determine how long it stays in office.

As some 42 million voters cast their ballot, the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan upped its share of vote from 34 percent to about 47 percent. The main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) held its own at 20 percent. Parliament also saw the entry of the extreme rightist National Movement Party (MHP) with 14 percent.

These were the only parties among more than a dozen to clear the 10 percent barrier required to enter Parliament. Independents, particularly Kurdish activists, fared well, placing more than 20 candidates in the legislative branch.

With some 340 members now in the 550-seat Parliament, AKP can form a government without any cumbersome coalition partners, but it still lacks the 367 required to elect the next president of the country, the main task of the new Parliament. Unless it comes to an accommodation for a presidential candidate acceptable to others, Parliament will have to be suspended and new elections held.

After its stunning triumph, Erdogan appeared conciliatory, and talked not only about democratisation but of secular values and togetherness, and of continuing the drive to full EU membership.

He did not respond to calls from the party faithful that the next president should be foreign minister Abdullah Gul. Gul is a former Islamist whose candidacy pushed by the party failed earlier to win the required majority in the face of opposition from secular parties, much of civil society, and the powerful military. The failure to elect a president led to elections three months ahead of schedule.

"The party won big," Jerome Bastion, an Istanbul-based French analyst of Turkish politics told IPS. "But if it wants to move on governing, it may have to go for a different candidate acceptable to the entire society, not just the party grassroots."

One objection to Gul's candidacy from the secularists has been that his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, banned in public places.

The number of women members has increased from 24 to 50. But no woman can wear a headscarf in Parliament. One who tried ten years ago was thrown out of Parliament, and never returned.

Gul's ascendancy to the presidential Pink Palace on the hills of Ankara would make his wife a First Lady hosting guests wearing an Islamic headscarf, a privilege not allowed so far even to guests at the palace since Turkey became a republic in 1923.

Both Erdogan and Gul come from a banned Islamist Party. They cruised to a surprising victory in the first electoral test in 2002, and now to their landslide victory.

Their central platform is to stress economic growth. The economy is growing at 7 percent a year, the highest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of 30 rich nations. Under Erdogan, inflation is down from more than 50 percent to single digit.

"The business world wants stability," Mehmet Ali Babaoglu, an entrepreneur and former board member of the main Industry and Business Association told IPS. "They have been good for business including privatisation, attracting foreign investment, and their drive towardss EU."

But the past of the party still haunts some, including the military, entrusted by the Constitution with safeguarding the republic against external and internal threats, and upholding the secular regime.

In what has been called an "e-coup", the military found Gul unacceptable as president in a midnight announcement on its website a few hours after nominations by the party. He then failed to gain enough votes to become president.

Now, almost half the Turks have voted for the AKP. The armed forces, which have intervened in overturning governments four times since 1960, had no comment on election results.

For the time in 15 years, Kurdish activists have representation in Parliament. In the past, although they got substantial votes, they never made their way to Parliament because their party never cleared the 10 percent barrier. This time they disbanded the party and ran as independents.

Kurdish leader Ahmet Turk declared after the results that the Kurdish deputies will attempt to solve the problems over the Kurd population (close to 20 percent of 70 million) by peaceful means. Turkey is beset by growing demands for Kurdish identity. Kurds say they want cultural rights, while nationalist Turks suspect they want increased autonomy on the road to independence.

As a backlash among Turks, the extreme right MHK upped its vote from eight to 14 percent in what is considered polarisation.

Also on the cards in line with such right-wing demands is a possible Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to wipe out Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents slipping into Turkey. They have been held responsible for terrorist attacks in cities, and on the military.

The position to be taken by independent Kurdish deputies in Parliament is seen as crucial. In the past, when elected Kurdish activists deputies spoke some words in Kurdish while taking the oath of office, they were tried and jailed for ten years.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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