- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

ANKARA, TurkeyTurkey’s Islamic-rooted ruling party won parliamentary elections by a wide margin yesterday, and the prime minister pledged to safeguard the country’s secular traditions and do whatever the government deems necessary to fight separatist Kurdish rebels.

With more than 99 percent of votes counted, television news channels were projecting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, would win 341 of the 550 seats, down from 351 in the outgoing parliament.

Two secular parties, the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Action Party, won 112 seats and 70 seats, respectively, the television stations said.

Independents backed by a pro-Kurdish party seeking more rights for the ethnic minority won 24 of the remaining 27 seats, the stations said.

Mr. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, told supporters in his victory speech that he would preserve pluralistic democracy and work for national unity.

“We will never make concessions over the values of people, the basic principles of our republic. This is our promise. We will embrace Turkey as a whole without discriminating,” he said at a rally in the capital, Ankara.

The election was called early to defuse a showdown with the military-backed, secular establishment, which contended that Mr. Erdogan and his allies were plotting to scrap Turkey’s secular traditions despite their openness to the West.

Mr. Erdogan raised concern with his efforts as prime minister to make adultery a crime and appoint former Islamists to key positions. Critics were also troubled by his calls for the lifting of restrictions on the wearing of Islamic head scarves.

Although the ruling party’s success has been touted as proof that Islam and democracy can coexist, the new government is likely to face persistent tension over the role of Islam in society.

“Democracy has passed a very important test,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Whoever you have voted for … we respect your choices. We regard your differences as part of our pluralist democracy. It is our responsibility to safeguard this richness.”

The government will have to decide how to deal with violence by Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy. NATO member Turkey is considering whether to stage an offensive into northern Iraq against separatist Kurdish rebels who rest, train and resupply at bases there.

Mr. Erdogan has warned the incursion could happen if security talks with Iraq and the U.S. fail. He has invited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit Turkey.

“In our struggle against separatist terrorists, we are determined to take every step at the right time,” Mr. Erdogan said of the conflict with the Kurds.

Turkey has made big strides after the economic and political chaos of past decades, but some feared the vote could deepen divisions in the mostly Muslim nation of 70 million.

Under Mr. Erdogan, inflation has dropped, foreign investment has increased, and the economy has grown at an annual average of 7 percent. The success of the ruling party signaled continuity in economic reforms and in Turkey’s troubled efforts to join the European Union.