Political Islam party wins Turkey’s national election

I By Karl Vick

iSTANBUL, Turkey – A party with roots in political Islam won a decisive victory in Turkey’s national election Sunday, presenting a possible challenge to a long secular tradition in a key strategic ally of the United States that Washington holds up as a democratic example to the Muslim world.

The Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish initials AKP, drew more than one-third of the vote, a plurality that would allow it to govern without a partner. The only other contender assured of winning seats in parliament was the Republican People’s Party, created by Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state on rigidly secular terms. It garnered about 19 percent of the vote, more than the 10 percent required for representation in parliament.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, has looked to the West since it was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the ruler of the Muslim east for 500 years. As a member of NATO, it was a crucial U.S. ally in the Cold War, and would be asked to play a key role in any new military campaign against neighboring Iraq.

Yet the meddling role the military has played in politics, especially against religious parties, has damaged Turkey’s dimming prospects of membership in the European Union, an effort the country has pursued with increasing vigor since its economy nearly collapsed early last year.

AKP capitalized on public outrage over the economy, analysts said. Throughout the two-month campaign, it presented an image of moderation and responsibility, and sought to distance itself from a boldly pro-Islamic government that was forced from power in 1997, largely by the senior officers Turkey’s constitution designates as guardians of Ataturk’s vision.

Sunday night, in a series of interviews aides said were calculated to calm fears of radical change, the AKP’s chairman, Recept Tayyip Erdogan, vowed not to interfere with the “lifestyle” of Turks, 98 percent of whom are Muslim but of widely varying degrees of piety. As mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s, Erdogan had banned alcohol in municipal restaurants.

He said Monday night that the top priority of the new Turkish government would be to convince the European Union to accept Turkey as a member, a widely shared goal in this largely low income nation of 67 million. But the chances of reaching that goal have become increasingly remote. The last chance for admission for at least a decade, the EU Copenhagen summit, is scheduled to take place next month.

“First things first,” Erdogan said, vowing to dispatch envoys to European capitals to deal with EU objections to Turkey’s record on human rights, as well as concerns about admitting a Muslim nation to what some call a “Christian club.”

The moves underscored AKP’s insistence that it would keep Turkey pointed firmly toward the West.

In an interview with U.S. reporters, Erdogan voiced the reservations held by many Turks about a possible U.S. military campaign in neighboring Iraq. But Erdogan also called the United States “a natural ally of Turkey” and vowed “our relationship will continue increasing.”

“We have to be cool right now,” said H. Cuneyd Zapsu, an AKP founding member and Erdogan aide. “We don’t want big tension.”

Political analysts applauded what they said was the party’s moderate stance, after a campaign marked by state efforts to derail AKP as a party and remove the popular Erdogan as its chairman.

“I think there are some good signals,” said Sedat Ergin, a prominent columnist. “He tried to give reassurances to the secular segments of the society.”

Ilter Turkmen, a former foreign minister, said many voters would be surprised by AKP’s showing, which Ergin termed “bigger than we all expected.”

“But they’re making a very determined effort,” Turkmen said. “There is the possibility that this party will be for the first time a liberal Islamic party, which would be positive. It’s possible.”

He defined a liberal Islamic party as resembling “Christian Democrats – they have some religious references, but there’s nothing specifically religious in their policies.”

“We see secularism as the guarantee of all the faiths,” Erdogan said.

But Erdogan’s history of mixing politics and religion has created a unique problem: he cannot serve as prime minister.

AKP was founded by self-described “moderate” veterans of a religious movement organized first as the Welfare and later the Virtue party. Both were eventually banned for violating Turkey’s secular constitution, and several leaders were jailed for “Islamic sedition.”

Erdogan, a popular mayor of Istanbul, served a four-month prison term in 1999. The sentence also carried a life-time ban on holding future political office.

During the campaign, AKP skirted the ban by pitching Erdogan as the party’s spokesman. His picture appeared on buses and posters. At rallies, he railed against the political establishment that many blame for the economic crisis that has put hundreds of thousands out of work, and tried to ban the AKP.

As AKP chairman, Erdogan’s name appeared on ballots directly below the party’s logo.

But because of the ban, Erdogan cannot become Turkey’s prime minister. Yet no obvious second choice emerged during the campaign. AKP officials said the party’s 50-member governing board would meet Tuesday to decide on a name to forward to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who formally appoints the prime minister.

That holds great potential for confusion, observers said. The prime minister, who is presented to the world as the country’s head of state, may not be the Turkey’s most powerful figure.

“This will be a test for Erdogan, because he might be tempted to choose a weak figure in order to manage the country from behind the scenes,” said Turkmen, the former foreign minister.

The next prime minister will also sit on the National Security Council, a mix of elected officials and military leaders, including the powerful chief of general staff. The council, which meets in secret, makes crucial decisions on all affairs, including the future of elected governments, as it did Feb. 28, 1997, when it forced the resignation of Turkey’s only openly Islamist prime minister.

Like the rest of Turkey’s political establishment, senior generals are also said to be deeply skeptical of Erdogan’s party. “I am worried about the AKP coming to power,” said outgoing prime minister Bulent Ecevit, whose discredited party drew less than 5 percent of the vote.