- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2007

ISTANBUL — The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears likely to win a solid majority of seats in parliamentary elections Sunday — an achievement that has less to do with ideology than a formidable political organization and its leader’s personal touch.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan “is a humble man from a humble family,” said Emin Turan a grocer in a working-class Istanbul neighborhood who once had a shop in the basement of the wooden house where Mr. Erdogan was born in 1954.

Mr. Turan said that Mr. Erdogan appeared as a witness at his youngest son’s wedding and, just six weeks ago, dropped by to offer his condolences for a death in the family. “Even today, his house is always open to people like me.”

The prime minister’s AKP, meanwhile, has a huge local network of volunteers and an energy that leaves its chief competitors far in its wake.

“Have you ever heard of an election where the government holds twice as many rallies as the chief opposition?” asked Cuneyt Ulsever, a political analyst who is critical of AKP.

Erdogan talks to people. The secularist leaders only talk to journalists.”

Mr. Ulsever was referring to the Republican People’s Party, whose senior cadre of aging diplomats looks increasingly cut off from the realities of modern Turkey.

The party was shown with the support of only 17.3 percent of voters in a poll released yesterday, compared with 42.6 percent for Mr. Erdogan’s AKP. The only other party likely to get into parliament, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party, was at 12.5 percent.

AKP has another major advantage over its competitors. Coming to power after the worst economic crisis in Turkey’s 84-year history, it has presided over five years of continuous rapid growth.

Per capita income more than doubled from 2002 to 2006, while inflation has fallen steadily from 70 percent to single digits. Even unemployment, still high at 10 percent, is creeping down.

“Our attraction? We’re a centrist, pragmatic party bringing a modern way of living to Turkish people, which is their aspiration,” said AKP deputy Egemen Bagis as he twisted silver worry beads through his fingers.

Like Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Bagis denies his party has any links with Islam, brushing off the label “Muslim democrat” in favor of “conservative democrat.”

In some senses, his claim is hard to fault. One of the most reformist governments in Turkey’s history, AKP has only occasionally nodded toward the more conservative end of its support base — for example by halfheartedly trying to criminalize adultery in 2004.

At an AKP rally outside Istanbul’s great Byzantine wall last weekend, the 400,000-strong crowd was traditional-looking, with a few men wearing the long beards favored by the very devout.

But head-scarf-wearing women only just outnumbered the bareheaded, and many people waving AKP’s blue, white and orange pennants said they used to vote for ordinary center-right parties. A rally by a more hard-line Islamist party on the same day drew only 15,000 people.

Question marks about AKP’s intentions remain in many people’s heads, however, particularly after the government’s clumsy handling of presidential elections in May.

Most analysts think Mr. Erdogan could have gotten a low-profile member of his party into Turkey’s top seat. His insistence on a man married to a woman who covers her head, though, triggered massive street protests and a midnight coup threat.

“Their economics is good, but I don’t quite trust them,” said Istanbul businessman Ersin Oktay. “I’ll be voting for the secularists, though I hope to God they don’t get into government.”

Mr. Oktay’s horror at the secularist party’s descent into Hugo Chavez-style economic nationalism is shared by many educated Turks.

The secularist-religious polarizations of the spring have been replaced by anxiety over rising violence in the Kurdish southeast. But with a new round of presidential voting required as soon as the new government is formed, few expect the religion issue to die soon.

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