Associated Press, THE JERUSALEM POST Jul. 22, 2007
Turks voted Sunday 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 Sunday's vote could deepen divisions in the mostly Muslim nation of 73 million people.
# Turkish Jews wary of Islam in vote
"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 7 a.m. 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 European Union.
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.
The Republican People's Party is expected to remain the main opposition group, railing against a government it says is intent on imposing religion on politics. The hardline Nationalist Action Party, which seems to share some policies with both the ruling party and the opposition, also appears poised to enter Parliament.
One of the first jobs of the new Parliament will be to elect a president. The post is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent has the power to veto legislative bills and government appointments.
In May, Erdogan's ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, abandoned his presidential bid after fierce opposition from the secular establishment. Opponents said Gul's election would remove the last obstacle to an Islamic takeover of the government, and the military - instigator of coups in the past - threatened to intervene to safeguard secularism.
The Milliyet newspaper on Saturday quoted Gul as saying that the military's warning had helped his party during the campaign because voters were angry at the effort to influence the political process.
"The intervention in the presidential election process deeply offended the Turkish people," he was quoted as saying. "This is how the people are showing their reaction."
Another task for the new government will be to decide whether Turkey, a NATO member, should stage an offensive into northern Iraq to thwart rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, who have bases there. The United States, beset by problems elsewhere in Iraq, opposes such a move, but Turkey is frustrated by escalating rebel violence, and says Washington has reneged on promises to help it fight terrorism.
Erdogan has said Turkey could stage an incursion into Iraq if talks on the security situation fail. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has received an invitation from Erdogan to visit Turkey, but no date has been set, the Iraqi government said.
"We have shed enough blood because of terrorism in this country, and everybody is so frustrated with the issue that the new government will definitely have to deal with the PKK first," said Mustafa Turgut, a 47-year-old industrial worker in Ankara. "We cannot bear with it anymore."