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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
Turkish PM's vote-winning formula
By Ebru Dogan
BBC News Online

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has easily cruised through his first major test since coming to power, with his party taking nearly 43% of the vote in Sunday's local elections.

AKP supporter on election night
The party is praised for bringing economic and political stability
It is no mean success for a party which was established only three years ago and came to power amid fears it might introduce Islamist-style changes in a mainly secular country.

Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) was the only party to have a strong presence across the country in Sunday's vote, compared to the localised gains of its rivals.

"AKP has become the party of Turkey," one commentator said.

Ultimately, what won Mr Erdogan the vote was the fact that he got his priorities right, and steered clear of religious debates.

European vote-winner

To start with, his government's policies brought economic stability to Turkey, three years after it nearly went bankrupt.

For people under the age of 30 - and there are plenty of them in the country's fast-growing, young population - the first time they have experienced an 11% inflation rate, as opposed to 70-80%, is under AKP's rule.

The government is also credited with achieving a 5% annual growth rate and maintaining good relations with foreign creditors - fuelling hopes for a full economic recovery.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a picture of Turkey's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in the background.
The prime minister tried to steer clear of religious issues
Politically, AKP leaders kept their eyes firmly on the nation's other most pressing priority - getting Turkey into the European Union.

In a matter of months, a series of democratisation reforms were approved to bring Turkey closer to its EU membership goal.

According to recent opinion polls, nearly 70% of the public support joining the EU.

Style was as important as content in this election.

The AKP government, the first with a clear majority in parliament in 15 years, passed this and other legislation swiftly and efficiently through parliament.

It was a welcome relief for many Turks after witnessing years of endless arguments among coalition allies, which usually ended with corruption inquiries being shelved in return for support on a bill.

Last but not least, the refusal to take part in the Iraq war was a big vote winner.

Islamic roots

The party's Islamic roots were a constant topic of debate in Turkey over the past two years.

Opposition newspapers dug out old tapes of Mr Erdogan, apparently making inflammatory speeches, and published pictures of him sitting reverently on the floor next to rebel Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The government's "economic miracle" is yet to manifest itself in many people's lives
His controversial university reform plans, as well as fierce attacks by senior party officials on the staunchly secular army and on a headscarf ban in public institutions made the headlines.

But each time, Mr Erdogan stepped in with conciliatory remarks, praise for the army, or a reversal of policy.

His party's gains in big cities, which are dominated by pro-secular voters, indicates he has convinced many voters that he is "not a wolf in sheep's skin".

But Mr Erdogan's biggest challenges may yet be ahead of him.

The government's "economic miracle" has yet to manifest itself in many people's lives, with an unemployment rate of 12% and a poor outlook for new investments.

Cyprus time-bomb

It is thought that AKP's pro-settlement policy for Cyprus, a sensitive national issue in Turkey, is largely responsible for the electoral rise of two right-wing parties.

They together won 20% of the vote and others may easily join them if the next few years show a bad deal has been cut for the Turkish Cypriots.

The vote-winning EU-tide could also turn against the prime minister if EU leaders refuse to give Turkey a date to start accession negotiations at their December summit.

On the domestic policy front, now that Mr Erdogan has a stronger mandate, his party's core voters are bound to put more pressure on him on issues such as the headscarf ban.

While trying to strike a balance, the prime minister still has to reckon with a powerful military which follows his every move.

His battle with an equally suspicious and deeply conservative bureaucracy, likely to vehemently oppose the implementation of his political reforms, has not even begun.

Mr Erdogan is certainly in for a rough ride.

Turkish PM declares poll victory
29 Mar 04  |  Europe
Annan finalises Cyprus plan
28 Mar 04  |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
16 Jul 03  |  Country profiles

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