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Turkish Voters Head to the Polls Sunday - 2002-11-02

A nervous calm prevailed in Turkey on the eve of crucial elections that are expected to usher in a complete overhaul of the country's political landscape. Voters look set to bestow victory on an untested party with Islamic roots, a prospect that frightens many Turks, who adhere to the secularism that is enshrined in their nation's constitution.

Straddling East and West, and pulled between the two, Turkey goes to the polls Sunday amid gathering storm clouds.

At a time when much of the world is jittery about the role of Islam in politics, voters seem willing to take a chance on a party with Islamist origins, but which now says it has evolved into a conservative, democratic organization concerned with social justice. The Justice and Development Party does not mention religion in its platform, but it does say it stands for traditional values.

Fehmi Koru, a journalist with the Islamist newspaper Yeni Safak says Sunday's election holds the key to how Turkey will solve its perennial divide between East and West, Islam and secularism, and the traditional poor and the Westernized elite.

"The result of this election will make us face our future, because the people have become more religious-minded," he said. "It is a battle, a kind of battle, for the soul of Turkey."

But others disagree. Sami Kohen, the dean of Turkish political columnists, says the Justice and Development Party and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have attracted millions of people who do not necessarily share traditional values, but who are fed up with the Turkish political establishment.

"Most of the people who are going to vote probably for AKP are not Islamists," he explained. "It's a kind of a protest vote. It's a protest vote. It's a reaction to the existing government, to the outgoing government, to the establishment... There are frustrations among those people, grievances, and that is channeled to the AKP."

The vote comes as the gap between Turkey's rich and poor is widening dramatically. A financial crisis last year cut most incomes sharply, sent the value of the currency reeling and added two million more people to the ranks of the unemployed.

Ilnur Cevik, who edits and publishes the Turkish Daily News, the country's only English-language newspaper, says that, as a result, voters on Sunday will punish nearly all of the traditional political parties.

"People see that the old parties have failed them very, very badly," he said. "People see that the economic crisis that they had to suffer was because of their mismanagement and their corruption."

Mr. Cevik says that is why the AKP is likely to capture 30 percent of the vote. The left-of-center Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), the only traditional group that is given a chance to make it into parliament, is running second with about 20 percent. None of the parties in the ruling coalition, according to the polls, is likely to get more than 10 percent, the threshold for entering parliament.

It is unclear whether the Islamist-based AKP will gain a majority of seats in parliament, or whether it will have to form a coalition with the CHP. Such an alliance would be the favored outcome of investors, anxious to see the AKP's inexperience tempered by the likes of the CHP's Kemal Dervis. He is the former World Bank official and economy minister who got the International Monetary Fund to lend Turkey $31 billion in exchange for unpopular belt-tightening measures. The Justice and Development Party says it supports the bailout, but insists on softening the impact of the IMF program on the poor.

Despite the AKP's insistence that it is a democratic, conservative and even secular party, there is widespread fear among Westernized Turks that it still has an Islamist agenda.

Zenep Gogus, a CHP candidate for parliament from Istanbul, fears that the AKP could try to roll back Turkey's strict secular laws.

"We don't know what they really represent, yet," she said. "So, we feel very insecure about it. Of course, they have a program. But how will they apply it?"

Most Turks seem willing to give the AKP a break. It does not have a history of corruption, like most of the other parties. And even some of those who are anxious about its taking power think that the party will exercise caution, at least at the beginning.

But the secularists and the military, the ultimate guarantor of Turkey's constitution, will be watching for any misstep by a party whose expected victory Sunday could thrust the country into uncharted political territory.