Decision Time in Turkey

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Officials in the Istanbul headquarters of the True Path Party tried hard to stay optimistic. But the votes were steadily being tallied, and the numbers barely moved. The party faithful, sunk in their chairs, paid less and less attention to the big-screen television where supporters of the winning party danced in the rosy light of burning flares, celebrating their victory over an unpopular government. "They don't see that they are going from the prison to the dungeon," said Mehmet Sicklik Ensari, a parliamentary candidate for the center-right Turkish party.

You could forgive him for being bitter. His group was running in third place Sunday, far behind Justice and Development (AK), the party of former Islamists that was sweeping to victory. As the hours wore on, True Path's take would creep up, but stop just short of the 10% needed to enter parliament. Overnight, they would go from having 85 of the 550 seats to having zero. Party leader Tansu Ciller, a former Prime Minister, would step down the next morning.

It's not that there was no support for the right wing. True Path had split a sizable vote nearly evenly with the Nationalists Action Party, and neither managed to get in. There were similar scenes scattered across Turkey's fragmented political landscape. At least four parties flew center-left banners. On the radical fringe, the Communist Party of Turkey vied with the Worker's Party and cut into votes for the Freedom and Solidarity Party. The populist Young Party took from everybody.

In the final tally, only two parties made the cut: The center-left Republican People's Party would form the opposition with 19% of the vote. AK's 34% brought it 363 parliamentary seats, just a few short of the two thirds needed to change the constitution. Forty-seven percent of the electorate had voted for neither party.

"Expect to have new elections soon," said Soli Ozel, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bilgi University. AK, led by Tayyip Erdogan, a successful former mayor of Istanbul, owed their victory not only to the splintered opposition, but to voters fed up with a tanking economy and a government they described as corrupt and incompetent. A large part of AK's votes were cast in protest. "The demands of this angry crowd are immediate satisfaction and punishment of the old guard," Ozel said. To maintain its popularity, the party will have to balance these demands with those of its natural religious, conservative constituency.

Turkey is facing a pivotal moment. As painful economic crisis shows little signs of easing, a war in Iraq threatens further destabilization. In the meantime, the country, which would love to move towards entering the European Union, instead risks a clash over the admission of the southern half of the divided Cyprus.

The new government's tasks could be made more difficult if AK can't shake its Islamist reputation and clashes with the ferociously secular military, which that forced the party's previous incarnation from government in 1999. Erdogan, already banned from taking office due to a 1997 conviction for inciting religious hatred, seemed aware of the risk. As soon as his victory seemed establish, he hastened to call a news conference and stressed his party's commitment to a pro-Western, pro-market platform. Meanwhile party officials asked supporters not to shout religious slogans. "We have won votes from all sectors and all parties," he later told Milliyet newspaper. "We have become the party of the center, and this was our target. From now on no one can call us a religious party."

His words were little comfort for Yusuf, a government worker who declined to give his last name. If his party, the pro-Kurdish Democratic People's Party, didn't win, it could only mean a conspiracy, he said. "The last government didn't represent us," he said. "And this one I don't think will either." "We could protest," he continued. "Maybe we could do that. But what we're more likely to do, normally, is wait for the next election."