Mon, Jul 23, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Turks vote for new parliament amid growing divisions

UNUSUAL MIX Turkey, led by a ruling party with Western-style political goals, has many Muslims who believe democracy and Islam can coexist


Turks voted yesterday for a new parliament that will face a host of challenges: a presidential election, violence by Kurdish rebels and a growing divide over the role of Islam in society.

The election was called early to defuse a political crisis over the Islamic-oriented ruling party's choice of presidential candidate, and the three-month campaign has been peaceful. Turkey has made big strides after the economic and political chaos of past decades, but some fear yesterday's vote could deepen divisions in the mostly Muslim nation of 73 million people.

"It looks like this new government will also find it hard to elect the president. The current situation looks very blurry," said Deniz Mat, a 22-year-old university graduate.

But he added: "Turkey is undergoing a fast pace of change, and I am hopeful for the future no matter which parties form the parliament."

The first of 160,000 polling stations opened at 7am in 32 eastern provinces, and polls in the rest of the country opened an hour later. Campaigning was prohibited on Sunday. Fourteen parties and 700 independent candidates were competing for the support of 42.5 million eligible voters.

Parties must win at least 10 percent of the votes in order to have representation in parliament, a high threshold that has drawn some criticism as being undemocratic.

The country has an emboldened class of devout Muslims, led by a ruling party with a willingness to pursue Western-style reforms in order to strengthen the economy and join the EU.

The success of this group has often been touted as proof that Islam and democracy can coexist, although its detractors accuse Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies of plotting to scrap Turkey's secular traditions despite their openness to the West.

Many of these government opponents constitute a traditional elite and have roots in state institutions such as the courts and the military, guardians of the secular legacy of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

They argue that personal freedoms -- such as the right to drink alcohol or a woman's choice of clothing -- are in peril, but they have more of an authoritarian background and less of a reformist record than the government.

Voter surveys suggest the ruling Justice and Development Party will retain a majority in the 550-member parliament, although its winning margin is likely to be smaller than when it came to power in 2002 elections.

One of the first jobs of the new parliament will be to elect a president.

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