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New Party With Islamist Roots Takes Lead in Turkey's Election - 2002-11-03

An untested new party with Islamist roots appears headed for victory and a comfortable parliamentary majority in Turkey.

In an election Sunday, Turkish voters have rejected virtually all of the country's established political groups and deprived them of any seats in the legislature. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, said immediately it has no plans to change the country's secular system.

It seems to be a humiliating defeat for Turkey's political establishment. With more than half of the ballots counted, only two parties have so far crossed the 10 percent threshold required to gain seats in Parliament.

They are the AKP, with about 35 percent of the vote, and the strongly secular Republican Peoples' Party founded by Turkish national hero Kemal Ataturk, with about 19 percent. If those totals hold up as the vote counting progresses, the AKP is projected to get at least 350 out of the legislature's 550 seats, enough to lead the country without having to form a coalition with other groups.

AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory for his party at an Istanbul news conference and pledged that the AKP would abide by Turkey's secular constitution. Mr. Erdogan himself was barred from seeking office because of a conviction for sedition, and there are doubts about who will become the country's next prime minister.

Despite its claims that it is a modern, Western-oriented conservative party more interested in social justice than in religion, the AKP is viewed warily by Turkey's secular establishment, which suspects it may have a hidden Islamist agenda.

Even observers who are inclined to give the AKP the benefit of the doubt and accept its assertions that it is not an Islamist party are anxious that it not do anything rash once it takes over the government.

Professor Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Sabanci University, said he hopes the AKP is clever enough to allow for a honeymoon period after its virtually certain electoral victory.

"If they immediately jump into challenge the system thinking that this is the time we won the election, this is the time to reap the benefits of it, then I think they will misjudge the determination on the part of the secularists to guard the system, and they immediately will have to face strong opposition, not only from the bureaucracy but also from the popular masses," he said.

Mr. Erdogan sought to allay the fears of people like Professor Carkoglu at his news conference in Istanbul Sunday. He promised to speed up Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the country's major foreign policy goal, and he pledged to make the country more open and attractive to foreign investors.

Analysts say the AKP's success was due to an angry electorate that decided to punish the established parties for mismanaging the economy and turned instead to the untested outsider with no history of corruption.