Economy trumps religion in Turkey
The ruling Islamic-rooted party won a landslide victory Sunday, raising more questions about the future of Turkey's officially secular state.
A landslide victory for this country's Islam-rooted ruling party on Sunday – and the sharp defeat of its secular opponents – shows that Turks are more worried about economic instability than the threat of more Islam in government.Skip to next paragraph
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But as the celebrations of the Justice and Development (AK) Party calmed Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan must turn to challenges ahead: naming a new presidential candidate, stopping attacks by Kurdish militants, and kick-starting stalled membership talks with the European Union.
Also uncertain is the reaction of Turkey's military – which cast themselves as the staunch defenders of the country's secular tradition, and has ousted four elected governments – to the fact that the AK Party increased its share of the vote by more than a third from the last elections in 2002, to 46.5 percent.
"This was a vote of confidence on the AK Party's record, and was certainly a democratic rebellion against military meddling," says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University.
"The AK Party – for all its faults … and all its nondemocratic inclinations – stood for opening up the Turkish system, widening the base of the regime, and remaining open to the rest of the world," says Mr. Ozel.
Buoyed by the result, the Turkish stock market soared, and the currency jumped to a two-year high against the dollar.
The AK Party kept hold of an absolute majority, with 340 out of 550 seats – fewer than it had before, due to a twist in allocation rules. The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) barely improved its 2002 vote share, with under 21 percent; a nationalist party reentered parliament with over 14 percent of the vote.
Mr. Erdogan immediately sought middle ground with conciliatory words, promising to protect secular traditions to calm fears of an overt Islamist agenda. His wife wears a head scarf – still forbidden in state institutions – as does the wife of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose candidacy to be president last April sparked a military warning, mass secular protests, and early elections.
"We will never make concessions over the values of people, the basic principles of our republic. This is our promise," Mr. Erdogan told celebrants outside the party headquarters in the capital, Ankara. He vowed to lift the nation "to the levels of modern civilization," invoking the name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered secular leader who founded Turkey in 1923.
"Democracy has passed a very important test," said Erdogan, calming his supporters while addressing the nation. "Whoever you have voted for…. We respect your choices. We regard your difference as part of our pluralist democracy. It is our responsibility to safeguard this richness."
A new presidential candidate must be put forward within a month, and experts say that the inclusionary tone of Erdogan's comments point toward a compromise choice that will be acceptable to the establishment. But armed with the second-largest electoral mandate in more than half a century in Turkey, the AK Party could force Mr. Gul into the presidential palace if it wished.
"Erdogan's speech gave two important messages: 'We are the center party,' and 'we understand the message of 54 percent who didn't vote for us,' " wrote Asli Aydintasbas in the Sabah newspaper, predicting that the premier would ease tension.