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Turkey’s ruling party triumphs

Islamic-leaning officials win nearly half the vote

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ISTANBUL, Turkey — The Islamic-inspired ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a larger-than-expected victory in nationwide parliamentary elections on Sunday, taking close to half the total vote in a stinging rebuke to Turkey's old guard.

With nearly all the votes counted, Erdogan's Justice and Development Party won 46.6 percent of the vote, according to Turkish election officials, far more than the 34 percent the party garnered in the last election, in 2002.

The secular state establishment had expected that voters would punish Erdogan's party for promoting an Islamic agenda. But the main secular party, the Republican People's Party, received just 20.9 percent, compared with 19 percent in the last election. The Nationalist Action Party, which played on fears of ethnic Kurdish separatism, won 14.3 percent, officials said.

The result was also a broad mandate for Erdogan's party, with large numbers of voters sending the message that they do not feel it is a threat to Turkish democracy. It fell short, however, of getting the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, a blank check that secular Turks fear.

According to preliminary results, Erdogan's party will receive at least 340 seats out of Turkey's 550-seat parliament. The main secular party will have at least 111; the nationalists at least 71, and independents an unusually large 28 or more.

Turkey is a NATO member and a strong American ally, positions Erdogan has emphatically affirmed, and its stability is crucial in a troubled region. Its current political soul-searching tries to find answers to a question Americans have been asking since the attacks of Sept. 11: Can an Islamic-oriented government that is popularly elected be democratic and westward looking?

Speaking to cheering supporters at his party headquarters in Ankara, Erdogan, whose party is known by its Turkish initials, AK, savored the victory. But he also struck a conciliatory tone, trying to soothe deep divisions with urban, secular Turks.

"Our nation certified the AK Party as the central power of the society," he said in the nationally televised speech to a crowd that was waving flags and dancing.

"I'm calling on our other citizens who didn't make their choices in support of AK. I also understand the message you sent in ballot boxes. We respect your choices. We consider your different choices as the richness of your democratic life."

It was unclear how Turkey's powerful military would react, if at all. It issued a sharp warning to Erdogan's party in April, saying it had strayed from secularism. It has deposed four elected governments since Turkey was founded in 1923.

The deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party, Onur Oymen, said by telephone that "AKP has been trading on religion and manipulating people's sentiments." Erdogan's party has pushed hard for European Union membership, rewriting laws to meet European standards and meeting requirements in an International Monetary Fund economic program. It has strengthened economic ties with Israel and has broached the topic of Turkey's long-festering problems with its Kurdish minority.

But secular, urban Turks are suspicious. The party comes from a religious, merchant class in rural Turkey, and the worldview of the senior leaders differs substantially from their own. Secular Turks recall Erdogan's beginnings as an Islamist and say it is impossible to trust his party, no matter what its current stance.

"The community that made Tayyip Erdogan who he is, is the Islamic community," said Nu Guvenmez, a gas industry employee who had just cast his vote for the secular party in an upscale neighborhood in Istanbul. "He hasn't broken ties. He can't leave it."

Erdogan took pains to allay those fears in his speech. "We will never compromise on the basic principles of the republic," he said. "Our joy should never be the sorrow of those who do not think like us."