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Turkey Votes for Stability

General elections in Turkey last Sunday [July 22nd] returned an Islamist party to power, but the vote may have been less a turn away from secular rule than a desire for economic stability. The ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, won nearly 47 percent of the vote and at least 340 seats in the 550-member parliament. But that is short of the two-thirds majority needed to elect a president without opposition support and the presidential balloting could re-ignite political divisions in the weeks ahead, as VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Istanbul.

Turkey sees itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Here at the straits of the Bosporus, people move easily from one continent to the other.

Political transitions are often not so smooth.

Elections went off without a hitch, but the campaign was heated and often bitter -- and showed rifts within the society --divisions between religious and secular, traditional and modern.

On the surface a major issue is the symbolism shown by the Islamic headscarf.

But at the core is Turkey's identity and its very foundation as a modern, secular state.

Political activist Idil Uzel is a staunch secularist. "I don't think there is really a divide within Turkish society, but I think AKP government poses real threats against the secular system."

Secularists like Uzel espouse a "Kemalist" doctrine -- they want Turkey to stay on a course set by the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who insisted on a strict division between religion and the state.

"This country was founded by Ataturk. We have seen the enlightenment era brought by Ataturk and we want to go on on the road of Kemalism. We do not need any moral police forces to tell us, 'Oh, what you're wearing is against Islamic rules so instead of God, I am here to punish you and to tell you how to live your life'" said Uzel

Political columnist Mustafa Akyol downplays such fears. He believes a greater role for religion does not threaten the principles of Ataturk. "Ataturk was a great leader who did many good reforms. Now we are living in a different time -- a time in which individual freedom, pluralism and democracy have become the real global values and I think we have to adapt to those values."

Zehra Taskesenlioglu agrees. She sees herself as a modern Muslim. "Actually, I have always followed what Ataturk says -- because Ataturk says women have to finish university, I finished two universities and how can someone say, 'Zehra doesn't follow his way.'"

Ataturk remains a revered figure. No one speaks out against him publicly.

With the election results, voters showed little fear that the AKP would impose the religious beliefs of its leaders.

Instead, voters chose the AKP's promise of economic stability, more foreign investment and continued talks with the European Union.

Despite assurances by the AKP's leaders that they have no intention to turn Turkey into an Islamic state, deep political differences remain and could re-surface in the coming weeks.

Choosing a president will be the first test of the new parliament, says political scientist, Ali Carkoglu. "If the parliamentary elites fail to cooperate on that first issue, it's likely that we're going to have to have another election, but it's a very small likelihood. "

It is doubtful any of the parties want to go through another election and risk alienating those voters looking for stability.

Despite their solid victory, the AKP does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament to push through its presidential choice.

And so it will have to cooperate and compromise. That seems to be just what Turkish voters wanted.