Sunday, July 22, 2007

Elections in Turkey

Turkey's ruling party wins elections
By Christopher Torchia
The Associated Press July 22, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party won parliamentary elections Sunday, taking at least 331 of 550 seats despite warnings from the secular opposition that the government was a threat to secular traditions.

The state-run Anatolia news agency said the ruling Justice and Development Party had won with 85 percent of the votes counted. Two secular parties, the Republican People's Party and the Nationalist Action Party, won 124 seats and 76 seats respectively, Anatolia said. Independents won 19 seats.

Ruling party supporters gathered in front of their Istanbul branch office, clapping, dancing and waving flags depicting the party symbol, a light bulb. In Ankara, the capital, a jubilant crowd of several hundred whooped as they watched election results on a big television screen erected outside party headquarters.

One of parliament's first jobs will be to elect a president. The post is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent has the power to veto legislative bills and government appointments.

In May, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul abandoned his presidential bid after opponents said his election would remove the last obstacle to an Islamic takeover of government. Hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded the streets and the military — instigator of past coups — threatened to intervene to safeguard secularism.

On Sunday, many people cut short vacations to head home to cast their ballots, and lines at some polling stations were long, with people voting early to avoid the summer heat. In Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, traffic jammed some main roads and police officers stood guard outside the gates of schools serving as polling stations.

The country has an emboldened class of devout Muslims led by the ruling party, which is willing to pursue Western-style reforms in order to strengthen the economy and join the European Union. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has presided over strong economic results, including reduced inflation, more foreign investment and average annual growth of 7 percent.

"Things are going well, there's stability in the economy," said Kadem Diner, a catering company owner. "I think it would be insane to ruin stability by voting for someone else."

The success of the ruling Justice and Development Party has often been touted as proof that Islam and democracy can coexist, although its detractors accuse Erdogan and his allies of plotting to scrap Turkey's secular traditions despite their openness to the West.

Many of these government opponents constitute a traditional elite and have roots in state institutions such as the courts and the military, guardians of the secular legacy of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

They argue that personal freedoms — such as the right to drink alcohol or a woman's choice of clothing — are in peril, but they have more of an authoritarian background and less of a reformist record than the government.

"I want our government to protect secularism," said banker Burcin Atalay, who voted for the Republican People's Party.

The new Parliament also faces violence by Kurdish rebels and a growing divide over the role of Islam in society.

"My biggest concern is security. I voted for a party which, I believe, will end terrorism and provide security for our citizens," said Remzi Ekinci, a civil servant. He declined to identify his choice because he works for the government.

After casting his vote, Erdogan appealed for national unity and criticized parties that he said tried to make gains through negative campaigning, Dogan news agency reported.

"We are the strongest advocates of a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law," Erdogan said. "I call on all leaders not to close their doors. Let's get around a table and discuss the problems of Turkey's democracy and make the rule of law reign."

The new government must decide whether Turkey, a NATO member, should stage an offensive into northern Iraq to thwart rebels from the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who have bases there.

Erdogan has said Turkey could stage an incursion into Iraq if talks on the security situation fail. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has received an invitation from Erdogan to visit Turkey, but no date has been set, the Iraqi government said.

Fourteen parties and 700 independent candidates were competing for a total of 42.5 million eligible voters. Voting is compulsory in Turkey, though fines for failing to vote are rarely imposed and turnout was 79 percent in elections in 2002.

Nevzat Yukselen, an election official, said the nationwide process was smooth. There were a few reports of scattered violence, but no fatalities.

Associated Press writers Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, and C. Onur Ant in Istanbul, contributed to this report.

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