Turkey Government Faces EU Challenges After Big Poll Win

Turkey's ruling AK Party on Monday celebrated its decisive victory in a parliamentary election, but strong nationalist gains dented its majority and could hamper reforms crucial to its European Union bid.

Published 23 July 2007
Turkey's ruling AK Party on Monday celebrated its decisive victory in a parliamentary election, but strong nationalist gains dented its majority and could hamper reforms crucial to its European Union bid.

With all votes counted from Sunday's poll, unofficial results gave the Islamist-rooted AK Party 46.5 percent, up more than 12 points on 2002, but a more united opposition means it will get 340 out of 550 seats, slightly fewer than before.

It was a personal triumph for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a controversial but very popular politician, who called the poll early after Turkey's secular elite, including army generals, torpedoed his choice of an ex-Islamist ally as the next president.

Financial markets welcomed the pro-business AK Party's triumph. The lira currency traded at its highest levels against the dollar in more than two years and bonds and shares soared.

The head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, congratulated Erdogan on his "impressive" win.

Newspapers hailed the outcome as a victory for democracy.

"This (result) is the people's memorandum," said the liberal Radikal daily, in a reference to an army memorandum in April that derailed the presidential election in parliament and forced Erdogan to call the parliamentary poll months ahead of schedule.

The staunchly secular army, which ousted an Islamist predecessor of Erdogan's party 10 years ago, had objected to the candidacy of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, fearing that as president he would erode the separation of religion and state.

"This election is a vote to restore democracy in Turkey. It has to be read in this way," Ihsan Dagi of Ankara's Middle East Technical University told CNN Turk television on Monday.

Addressing jubilant supporters at the lavish new party headquarters in Ankara on Sunday night, Erdogan was greeted with chants of "Abdullah Gul -- president", but it remains unclear whether he will risk a fresh confrontation with the secularists over the presidency.

One of the first tasks of the new parliament, which reconvenes next week, is to choose a president to replace incumbent Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a fierce AK Party critic.


COMMON VALUES

Aware of Turkey's deep political divisions, Erdogan tried to reassure those who suspect him of plotting to dismantle the secular state, saying he would govern for all Turks and citing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the modern republic.

"Please be assured that no matter for whom you voted, your votes are valuable for us too. We respect your choice ... We have common values and objectives that unite us all," he said.

Erdogan also vowed to press on with political and economic reforms required by the EU. But his party lacks the two thirds majority in parliament needed to change Turkey's constitution and will have to work with opposition parties on many issues.

Two other, secularist, parties made it into parliament -- the nationalist Republican People's Party (CHP) with 112 seats and the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) with 71.

Some 27 mainly Kurdish independents also got into parliament, the first Kurds since the early 1990s -- prompting wild celebrating in their troubled eastern heartland.

The Turkish nationalists will resist more rights for ethnic and religious minorities as well as other reforms sought by the EU and will also press Erdogan to send troops into northern Iraq to root out Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels hiding there.

Turkish security forces have been battling the PKK rebels since 1984 in a conflict that has cost more than 30,000 lives. Violent clashes have increased over the past year.

Economists said Erdogan could now press on with free-market policies that have already delivered strong economic growth and kick-start stalled EU talks, although disillusionment at joining the bloc and resistance from France could spell trouble ahead.

"The economic programme and structural reforms will continue in the same way," Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan told Reuters.

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