Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party bolstered its strength in nationwide municipal polls Sunday capturing some 40 percent of the vote. The outcome is a ringing endorsement of the conservative party's drive to accelerate Turkey's membership of the European Union and of its aggressive economic reforms.

The Justice and Development Party, or AKP retained control of key cities, including the capital Ankara, and the country's largest city, Istanbul, while registering gains in regions long dominated by left-wing groups.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had "voted once again for stability and progress."

The main opposition pro-secular Republican People's Party trailed well behind with about 20 percent of the vote.

Formed by a group of former Islamists three years ago, the AKP swept to power in November 2002 parliamentary polls with 34 percent of the vote, giving Turkey its first single party government in 15 years.

Analysts say poll results reflect the huge success of thousands of AKP run municipalities.

Unlike their pro-secular rivals, AKP mayors have been largely untainted by corruption and have catered to the needs of the urban poor, providing free food and fuel for thousands of shanty town dwellers. Mr. Erdogan, himself, rose to national prominence in the 1990's as the mayor of Istanbul, who brought water to the drought stricken city of 10 million.

Fears that the party might steer the country away from the pro-Western and secular policies introduced by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, have proven empty so far.

In a further bid to quell such concerns, Mr. Erdogan did not field any female candidates, who wear the Islamic style headscarf in Sunday's polls. And in a gesture to non-Muslim Turks, the AKP ran three ethnic Armenians for smaller municipal districts in Istanbul.

At the national level, the AKP dominated parliament has pushed through a raft of reforms designed to help Turkey open membership talks with the EU, among them measures to ease bans on the Kurdish language and stiffening penalties for torture. The changes may have helped the AKP snatch mayoral seats in five major predominantly Kurdish cities held by the country's largest pro-Kurdish group, the Democratic People's Party, or Dehap.