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Party with Islamic Roots Wins Landslide Victory in Turkish Elections - 2002-11-04


An untested party with roots in political Islam has been handed a landslide victory by Turkish voters angry at the political establishment for failing to come to grips with a crippling recession. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is laying plans to form a new government.

The AKP said its executive board will meet Tuesday to discuss who it will put forward for prime minister, after its overwhelming victory at the polls.

The party's charismatic leader, former Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is banned from holding office because of a 1998 conviction for inciting religious hatred.

Despite its Islamist origins, the AKP calls itself a modern conservative party and said it is more interested in social justice than in religion. At a victory news conference on Sunday, Mr. Erdogan promised to uphold Turkey's secular constitution.

Still, Turkey's political, business and military establishment view the AKP warily, and some suspect it of harboring a hidden Islamist agenda.

Dogu Ergil, a political sociologist at Ankara University, said the AKP is unlikely to push such issues as allowing women to wear headscarves in government offices and universities. Professor Ergil has said the AKP polled its members before the election and found that very few had religious issues at the top of their list of concerns.

"Only 2.8 percent of AK party's [AKP's] constituency said they want a system, a lifestyle, based on religious principles. So the AK party, in that sense, cannot represent a political Islamist direction. ... They say they are respectful towards religion, but that religion will not guide [them] in [their] policy-making," he said.

Having captured 34 percent of the total vote and garnering 363 out of Parliament's 550 seats, the AKP is the first Turkish party in more than a decade that will be able to govern alone, without the need to form a cumbersome coalition.

The only other group to enter the legislature is the staunchly secular Republican Peoples' Party, which obtained 19 percent of the vote and will hold 178 seats. It has promised, what it calls, constructive opposition to the AKP.

It was voter frustration with a political establishment seen as inefficient and corrupt that gave the AKP its sweeping mandate for change. Turks ejected virtually all of the country's traditional parties from the legislature in one of the most dramatic upheavals in the country's modern history.

Now comes the hard part for the untested victors. The AKP has little experience in wielding power. A prosecutor wants to outlaw it. And the powerful military will be closely watching its every move.