Moderate Islamic Party Wins Vote in Turkey

Times Staff Writer

Propelled by voter anger over a two-year economic crisis, a populist party with Islamist roots easily won Sunday’s national elections here, sweeping a corrupt government from power and igniting fears of a potential showdown with a staunchly secular military.

Unofficial results showed the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, winning 34.2% of the vote -- enough to control parliament and a clear sign of the contempt Turks feel for an era of infighting and economic turmoil brought about by coalition governments.

Most of the nation’s 41 million voters probably spoke with their pocketbooks, not their religious convictions.

But the religious overtones were apparent. Widely described as a moderate Islamic party espousing Western democratic principles, the AKP is coming to power as Turkey is pushing for European Union membership and as the U.S. eyes this nation’s air bases for a possible war against Iraq.

The Turkish military, the protector of the secular constitution, is wary that the party might tug the country east, away from an 80-year struggle to join the West.


According to the unofficial results, the AKP’s main rival -- the Republican People’s Party, or CHP -- won 19.4% of the vote. It was the only other party to pass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. The Democratic Left Party of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, blamed for the nation’s economic collapse and an estimated 20% unemployment rate, received only 1.3% of the ballots. Official results are expected by Wednesday.

“We committed suicide,” said Ecevit, referring to the government’s decision to hold elections 18 months early for 550 parliament seats. Ecevit’s poor health was a main factor in the change.

AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to defuse fears about his party’s religious intentions and emphasized Turkey’s relationship with Europe. In his victory remarks, Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, said: “The process of joining the European Union will be speeded up,” and Turkey “will follow economic programs to integrate the country with the world.”

“The AKP will have to move quickly to establish ties with the West,” said a Western diplomat. “They have to sort of legitimize themselves. If they have this majority and they attempt to use it to change the constitution, they will undoubtedly have problems not only with the military but also with businessmen and a huge portion of the country.”

Analysts predict that the Turkish military will not immediately react to the AKP’s landslide but will wait to see how firmly the party holds to its pro-Western promises. In 1997, the military forced the Islamic Welfare Party from power.

Sunday’s victory was a testament to the AKP’s organizational ability and to Erdogan’s dynamic personality. The party, which was established in 2001 by lawmakers from a banned pro-Islamic party, projected a folksiness that captured villages and hamlets scattered across vast agricultural regions. It employed a more sophisticated tone in the cities, where disillusioned professionals were eager for change.

Party officials bristled whenever the AKP was referred to as Islamist, insisting that they would not abandon Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other pro-Western commitments. On Sunday, Erdogan even said he would reluctantly support a strike on Iraq if it was approved by the U.N.

Drums echoed and horns blared outside AKP headquarters here in the capital Sunday night. The party’s yellow-and-blue flags snapped in a strong wind, and men and women danced as vote tallies were announced. Most have felt the sting of Turkey’s recession. Many said the AKP’s strong showing revealed a steely desire by voters for new faces to improve a country struggling to comply with a $31-billion recovery plan from the International Monetary Fund.

“Turkey has been going through disastrous times. It’s not a surprise the victory is so big,” said Ahmet Tatlili, a political science student who said his father, a meat salesman, has lost 40% of his business over the last year. “None of the other parties can solve these problems.”

Standing next to Tatlili was Mehmet Baykal, a pharmacist, who said his business is down 50%. “We need the AKP to crack down on corruption,” he said. Baykal’s wife, Deniz, had a different reason for supporting the party. She wants the ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in public buildings repealed so young observant Muslim women can attend universities. “The law must be abolished,” she said.

Such sentiments anger CHP supporters such as Halil Pulat.

“I’m shocked the AKP won a majority,” he said as he walked past a row of taverns in downtown Ankara. “It’s clear that no matter what they say, the AKP will try to introduce religious rule. First, they’ll allow head scarves, and then who knows?

“For all our best efforts to reach out to the West, the West has always seen us as Iran,” Pulat added. “With an AKP victory, people in the West will feel vindicated by that opinion.”

The AKP will be taking charge of the government with unresolved problems of its own. Erdogan was jailed in 1999 for religious sedition after publicly reciting a well-known poem the government regards as radical. He was consequently banned from serving in the government.

Erdogan has exacerbated the dilemma by not yet naming a candidate for prime minister from the party’s ranks. Last week, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said he would step in and designate a prime minister. Many of the AKP’s critics, however, are concerned that Erdogan will manipulate the government from behind the scenes. They question his transformation from a mayor who banned alcohol in Istanbul restaurants and opposed EU membership to a westward-leaning, sound-bite-savvy party leader.

But “the AKP will not be religious in office,” said Bulent Akarcali, a former member of parliament. “These guys are Western-oriented. They’re not fundamentalists.”