ANKARA: Turkish Ruling Party Bolsters Strength in Municipal Polls

Turkish Ruling Party Bolsters Strength in Municipal Polls

Amberin Zaman
28 Mar 2004, 22:04 UTC

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party bolstered its strength
in nationwide municipal polls Sunday capturing some 40 percent of the
vote. The outcome is a ringing endorsement of the conservative party’s
drive to accelerate Turkey’s membership of the European Union and of
its aggressive economic reforms. The Justice and Development Party,
or AKP retained control of key cities, including the capital Ankara,
and the country’s largest city, Istanbul, while registering gains in
regions long dominated by left-wing groups.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had “voted once again
for stability and progress.”

The main opposition pro-secular Republican People’s Party trailed well
behind with about 20 percent of the vote.

Formed by a group of former Islamists three years ago, the AKP swept
to power in November 2002 parliamentary polls with 34 percent of the
vote, giving Turkey its first single party government in 15 years.

Analysts say poll results reflect the huge success of thousands of AKP
run municipalities.

Unlike their pro-secular rivals, AKP mayors have been largely
untainted by corruption and have catered to the needs of the urban
poor, providing free food and fuel for thousands of shanty town
dwellers. Mr. Erdogan, himself, rose to national prominence in the
1990’s as the mayor of Istanbul, who brought water to the drought
stricken city of 10 million.

Fears that the party might steer the country away from the pro-Western
and secular policies introduced by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal
Ataturk,have proven empty so far.

In a further bid to quell such concerns, Mr. Erdogan did not field any
female candidates, who wear the Islamic style headscarf in Sunday’s
polls. And in a gesture to non-Muslim Turks, the AKP ran three ethnic
Armenians for smaller municipal districts in Istanbul.

At the national level, the AKP dominated parliament has pushed through
a raft of reforms designed to help Turkey open membership talks with
the EU, among them measures to ease bans on the Kurdish language and
stiffening penaltiesfor torture. The changes may have helped the AKP
snatch mayoral seats in five major predominantly Kurdish cities held
by the country’s largest pro-Kurdish group, the Democratic People’s
Party, or Dehap.