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Turkey's Islamists Gain Strength in Local Vote

Prime Minister Ciller's party did better than expected, but the Islamists won mayorships across the secular nation

ISTANBUL, Turkey's largest city with 10 million people, will be ruled by a pro-Islamist mayor for the next five years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a leading member of the Welfare Party (WP), won in March 27 nationwide municipal elections. A WP mayoral candidate also won in Ankara, the historical capital where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk won Turkey's independence and founded a modern and secular country with Western-style reforms early this century.

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The pro-Islamist WP has emerged as the biggest winner of the elections, taking the mayorships in 30 of Turkey's 76 provinces. It obtained 18.4 percent of the total vote, doubling its votes since the last general elections. But Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party still won the most total votes with 22.5 percent.

The surprising gains of the Islamists stunned members of the other political parties, which are committed to secularism. Although the results will not affect the composition of parliament - where the WP holds only 40 of the 450 seats - it will both strengthen the Islamic extremists at the local level and give them some leverage on the central government.

The local elections had been regarded as a referendum on Mrs. Ciller, the country's first woman leader, and her coalition government - and particularly on its efforts to tackle the nation's economic problems and to contain Kurdish separatists.

Ciller tackles problems

The nine-month-old administration is engaged in a crackdown on Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy in southeastern Turkey. One-third of the Turkish armed forces are deployed in the region, where more than 11,000 lives have been lost in the last eight years. Ciller has promised to end the insurgency and terrorist attacks - also aimed at major cities - by the end of the year.

Ciller, an economist-turned-politician, also faces mounting economic woes. Inflation, which was about 70 percent when she took office last June, is now reaching three-digit figures. The Turkish lira has been depreciated by more than 50 percent since the beginning of this year, and unemployment, which was 16 percent last year, is rising rapidly.

Vote of confidence

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The local elections, held at such a critical time, turned into a referendum on the government's ability to cope with these problems. In spite of the gloomy predictions, Ciller managed to fend off critics blaming her for Turkey's problems and win what her supporters described as a popular vote of confidence.

The 22.5 percent win of the True Path Party was slightly down from its results in the last general elections. But Ciller's coalition-government partner, the Social Democratic Party, suffered a serious setback, taking only 13.2 percent of the total vote.

The other center-right group, the Motherland Party of the late President Turgut Ozal, had been predicted to be the winner, but emerged in second place with 21.1 percent of the total.

There was speculation before the elections that with a poor showing, Ciller would come under strong pressure from the opposition as well as from critics inside her party to resign. There was also talk about the possibility of early elections.

But ``there is no need for any change of government, nor for early elections,'' says Yildirim Aktuna, minister of information and a close aide to Ciller. ``The public has given the government the green light to continue its policies.''

In fact, the government is expected to launch a comprehensive ``economic reform package,'' including large-scale privatization and austerity measures.

But there is a question as to whether the government coalition will hold. The Social Democratic Party could quit the government following its setback in the polls. Party leaders are attributing their local losses to their partnership with Ciller's party.

If they withdraw, Ciller would have to turn to the Motherland Party, now the major opposition in parliament. The two parties have almost no ideological differences, but personality rivalries and enmity remain a stumbling block for such a coalition.

The WP's rising popularity is due, according to many observers here, to the dissatisfaction of many people with the government's policies. WP leaders have been campaigning with a doctrine advocating an ``Islamic economy'' and an Islamic social status. The doctrine is strongly opposed to the West, including the United States, Israel, and the European Union, and advocates Turkey's leading the Islamic world. Ciller supports stronger ties with Europe and other modernization plans.

Protest votes

Many of the votes cast for the WP were ``protest votes'' or votes for change. Many ordinary Turks said they just wanted to try the WP after other parties have failed to resolve Turkey's problems.

Another factor that helped the WP is the deep divisions in the two moderate right and three moderate left parties.

The result is shocking for many Turks, who see a serious danger in the Islamists' growing power. Those who care about the preservation of secularism and the ``Kemalist'' modernization see a rough time ahead, with administrators of the WP attempting to impose religious doctrine on the secular system.

``This is shocking,'' commentator Mehmet Barlas said on television. ``But perhaps the Turkish society needed such a shock to see better the dangers that lie ahead.''

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