Ruling Party Wins Big in Turkey

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GALI TIBBON / AFP / Getty Images

Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) jubilate with a huge banner with his image on July 22, 2007 at the party's headquarters in the capital city of Ankara,

Voters in Turkey delivered incumbent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a resounding victory in elections Sunday, crushing the secularist opposition that sought to topple Erdogan — whose Islamist roots, they fear, pose a threat to the country's secular order.

Support for Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose from 34% in the 2002 election to nearly 47% Sunday, according to preliminary results. It marks the first time in 52 years that Turks have voted an incumbent party back into power with even more support than before. It is also a profound sign of Turks' disaffection with the traditional secularist elite.

Erdogan called the early election in May to reaffirm his mandate after the country's secularist establishment — including its powerful generals — blocked him from appointing Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as President. Gul, whose wife wears an Islamic-style headscarf, was opposed by the secularists because his presidency would remove any checks on the AKP, whom, they fear, harbors a secret agenda to turn Turkey into an Iranian style theocracy. Members of the AKP dismiss those claims, saying they have moved away from early Islamist roots and pointing to a successful five-year track record in office.

Erdogan's strategy appeared to have paid off. His party far outdistanced the main secularist opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), which trailed with 20% of the vote. It was a shattering defeat for the party, which had urged voters to defend the secular political system established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk against what they claim is the political Islam of Erdogan and his party.

"The CHP sought to win by playing up people's fears [of political Islam]," said economist Ayse Bugra. "But it didn't work."

Erdogan was seen as benefiting from a booming economy, which has grown an average 7% over the past five years, low inflation and a stable currency. His campaign promised more economic, social and political reforms to bring Turkey in line with European Union standards, even though the country's bid for membership in the E.U. has lost much of its momentum amid European opposition.

"I am not particularly religious," said Mehmet Yilmaz, a store owner in an up-market Istanbul district that backs the secular CHP. "But my business is doing well under this government. The Turkish lira is stable. That's what counts for me. Honestly, I don't think there's any chance we are going to turn into Iran." Sociologist Nilufer Gole says the AKP has become Turkey's new "centrist, democratic" political alternative.

Speaking to crowds outside the AKP headquarters in Ankara, hoarse from the campaign trail, Erdogan called the result a victory for Turkey's democracy. He promised to continue with Turkey's E.U. membership drive, told secularist voters that he "understood them too" and, quoting Ataturk, said he would seek national unity.

Following the dispute in May when Gul, his nominee for President, was blocked, Erdogan has shown conciliatory signs — fielding a more moderate and centrist list of candidates in these elections, for instance. The next test will be his choice for a presidential candidate. Choosing one the secularists approve of would be a big step toward defusing Turkey's current political tensions. But with such an overwhelming mandate of support, Erdogan may be emboldened even further.