Turkish leaders in final stretch before key legislative elections

Turkish leaders wrapped up their campaigns Saturday in early legislative elections with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tipped to retain power after a political crisis that polarised the country.Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is expected to win a convincing victory in Sunday’s snap polls, brought forward from November to end the crisis prompted by concerns over Turkey’s secular fabric.

Turkey’s militant secularists fear that the ruling AKP is seeking to undermine the separation of state and religion in this Muslim-majority country, but Erdogan is counting on his government’s economic achievements to sway the vote.

“We held rallies across Turkey to explain to the public… the importance of stability and of having stability for at least another term,” Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.

“I hope people will reach their decision in all honesty after comparing the Turkey of today with that before the AKP government,” which swept to power in the 2002 elections, Gul was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.

Erdogan is expected to drive home the same message in his final campaign appeal for votes at a party rally late Saturday in the southern province of Hatay.

Since the AKP came to power five years ago, Turkey has become a high-growth country with relatively low inflation and record foreign investment, and has launched membership talks with the European Union.

But opponents say the AKP seeks to boost religion’s role in secular Turkey and cite as one example the botched presidential elections in April.

The AKP, the offshoot of a now-banned Islamist party, has disowned its roots and pledged commitment to secularism.

However, Erdogan was forced to bring the legislative elections forward from November after the AKP failed twice to get Gul, a former Islamist, elected the country’s president by a vote in parliament because of an opposition boycott.

The crisis escalated with a stiff warning from the military that it was ready to defend Turkey’s secular system and millions of Turks demonstrated countrywide against an AKP president.

But recent polls showed that, contrary to opposition expectations, the AKP benefited from the crisis.

One of the latest surveys predicted that Erdogan will get some 40 per  cent of the vote — well above its 34 per cent showing in the previous election.

Both surveys have the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in second place and predict that the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP) will return to parliament after an absence of five years.

Several independent lawmakers, mostly members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) running without a ticket to overcome a 10 per  cent national threshold for parliamentary representation, are also expected to win seats.

With more parties likely to be represented than in the outgoing, bipartisan house, the AKP’s current majority of 352 in the 550-seat parliament is likely to decrease under the proportional representation system, even if it increases its votes.

Many fear a fresh confrontation with the secular establishment if the AKP gets a full two-thirds parliamentary majority, or 367 seats, and tries to once again install Gul as president, or amend the constitution — but the surveys show that is unlikely.

“It would not be wrong to say that the results of the elections will constitute a difficult test for our democracy,” former foreign minister Ilter Turkmen wrote in the mass-circulation daily Hurriyet.

Opposition parties also campaigned heavily about the mounting violence by separatist rebels of the Kurdish Labour Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country to discredit the government.

In the latest fighting, two policemen were slightly hurt when the rebels attacked a police checkpoint in the southeastern town of Semdinli with rocket launchers, Anatolia said.

The CHP and the MHP have both accused the government of being soft on the rebels and are calling for a cross-border operation to strike at PKK bases in northern Iraq.

In a bid to quell rising public anger over the issue and win votes, Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey could send troops to Iraq if talks with Iraqi and US officials fail to produce effective measures against PKK bases there.

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