Sunday, July 22, 2007

Islamism Spreads to Turkey

July 22, 2007
Turkey’s Ruling Party Leading National Elections

ISTANBUL, July 22 — The ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a strong lead in the national elections today, according to preliminary results, setting the stage for a final confrontation over who should run Turkey.

With 57 percent of the national vote counted, Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development party had taken more than 48 percent of the vote, far higher than the 18 percent garnered by the secular opposition Republican People’s Party and the 14 percent taken by the Nationalist Action Party.

The results, broadcast on Turkish television at 8 p.m. local time, represent a slap to the state establishment, whose secular and nationalist parties were predicting that voters would punish Mr. Erdogan’s party for trying to push what they said was an Islamic agenda.

But while Mr. Erdogan’s party is expected to garner the largest portion of the vote in this young, predominantly Muslim democracy of 73 million, it will have to share the Parliament with the two opposition parties and with a broad new array of independents. Though Mr. Erdogan’s party will be able to rule alone, it does not appear to have won enough of the vote to approve constitutional amendments on its own, and will need to seek coalitions.

“I believe our democracy will emerge much stronger with this election,” Mr. Erdogan said, voting with his wife Emine in Istanbul, the Anatolian News Agency of Turkey reported. “This isn’t just a message to our country, but a message to the world.”

Turkey is a NATO member and a strong American ally in a troubled region and its stability is crucial. The election comes after three months of political uncertainty, after a showdown over the presidency led to today’s elections ahead of schedule.

Turkey’s secular state elite, backed by its military, used a legal maneuver in May to block Mr. Erdogan’s candidate from becoming president. Their objection was that the wife of the candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, wears a Muslim headscarf.

The episode brought out strong emotions in Turks and deeply divided the nation. In its essence, the disagreement is a power struggle between Mr. Erdogan and his religious colleagues, and the secular state elite — judges, military officers and bureaucrats — who have steered the state since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular revolution in 1923.

There is also a fear among secular, urban Turks that politicians from Mr. Erdogan’s party, who come from a religious, merchant class in Turkey’s countryside, will change Turkey’s secular system and limit freedoms for their own secular way of life.

“They are trying to tear apart the basic values of our republican life,” said Ekrem Tekbalta, 57, a well-dressed lawyer, who voted in an affluent neighborhood in central Istanbul.

But supporters of Mr. Erdogan’s party, known by its initials in Turkish, A.K., say that the party has done little to arouse secular fears and that the objection to it has more to do with class than with creeping Islamism.

“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 A.K. party out of protest to the struggle over the presidency in the spring. “Gul was liked and favored in Europe, but because of his religious identity, they rejected him.”

Others voted for the ruling party because the economy has been growing since it came to power and undertook a series of political changes aimed at achieving membership in the European Union.

“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.”

A.K. party officials welcomed the early results.

“We’re moving towards a very good result,” said Salih Kapusuz, a senior A.K. Party official, speaking on NTV, a Turkish television station. “ Our nation has approved A.K. party’s five years in government and granted the authority for another five years. Republic, democracy and Turkish nation are winning.”

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.