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Turkish Voters Go to the Polls - 2002-11-03

Voters In Turkey are choosing a new government Sunday in elections that could completely overhaul the country's political landscape. The likely victor is an untested party with Islamic roots that Turkey's secular establishment fears may try to turn back the clock.

Balloting began early in Turkey, with voters lining up at the polls in some places just as the sun was coming up. Voting is obligatory in Turkey, and the majority of the country's 41 million registered voters were expected to take part in the poll.

Turkish voters, reeling from the worst economic crisis in more than 50 years, are angry at the government and the entire political establishment and are expected to vote heavily for the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a controversial new group that grew out of a banned Islamist party.

The AKP denies having an Islamist agenda, and its platform makes no mention of religion. Its leaders say the group is a modern conservative party whose goal is social justice.

But fears persist among Turkey's secular establishment and the Westernized elite that an AKP government might try to lift a ban on the wearing of headscarves in such places as universities and prohibit the sale of alcohol in public places.

The secularists say such moves would threaten Turkey's 79-year-old tradition of strictly separating religion from politics.

But some Turks say the AKP should be given the benefit of the doubt, noting that most of its likely voters are people who are sick and tired of the political infighting, mismanagement and corruption they believe is prevalent among the established parties.

Sami Kohen, the dean of Turkish political columnists, says Sunday's election will provide a crucial test of how well Turkey's secular democracy and a greater emphasis on Islam can co-exist. "This might be a very moderate Muslim party that would perhaps try to combine, try to establish a kind of new model, a synthesis between moderate Islam and secularism, between progress and conservatism. So, in that respect, it's an important test for Turkey."

But many secular voters are not so sure, and they have been flocking to the Republican Peoples' Party, the only traditional party that is certain to get into Parliament.

The polls show that the AKP will get about 30 percent of the vote and the Republicans about 20 per cent.

The polls say most of the other 16 parties in the contest, including the three that make up the current ruling coalition, will fail to obtain the 10 percent of the total vote they need to get into Parliament.