ANKARA, Turkey – A party with Islamic roots won a landslide victory in Turkish elections Sunday and its leader quickly moved to calm fears of a shift away from secularism in this key U.S. ally.
At a huge victory celebration, Justice and Development Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters: "We will not spend our time dizzy with victory. We will build a Turkey where common sense prevails."
Erdogan immediately sought to allay fears his party, which has roots in Turkey's Islamist movement, would move the nation toward religion. He pledged support for secularism, Turkey's bid to join the European Union and even said he would reluctantly support a U.S. strike on Iraq if it is approved by the United Nations.
The party's win was fueled by voter anger at Turkey's worst economic crisis since World War II and disillusion with the political elite. In an election in which all incumbent parties lost, the party benefited from not serving in the last parliament and having a clean image.
By emphasizing social and economic issues, the party gathered a strong following and avoided angering the powerful and staunchly pro-secular military and courts, which have pushed earlier pro-Islamic parties from power. It is not clear how the military will react to the win.
"I voted for Justice because we have no trust left in the other parties," said Hatice Bilal, 43, a civil servant. "We want an end to poverty."
With 97 percent of the vote counted, Erdogan's party had 34 percent support and the center-left Republican People's Party had 19 percent, the Anatolia news agency reported.
None of the other 16 parties reached the 10 percent support threshold needed to enter parliament, meaning all the seats in the 550-seat legislature will go to the Justice and Republican parties, with the former winning a majority.
Despite leading the Justice party, Erdogan has been banned by the elections board from standing as a candidate because of a jail sentence he served in 1999 for publicly reading a poem deemed anti-secular. It is not clear who the party will name as prime minister or if lawmakers would try to end the ban.
Erdogan said his government's first priority will be to "speedily pursue the EU membership process." He said that his government will "follow an economic program to integrate the country with the world."
"We have no intention to challenge the world," he told Dow Jones Newswires.
He later said that he would support a war against Iraq if it is approved by the United Nations.
"We do not want war, blood, tears and dead in our region," Erdogan said. However, he added, "We are obliged by the United Nations decisions ... The important thing is the United Nations' decisions."
Turkey, a NATO-member country, hosts U.S. warplanes at its southern Incirlik air base, which was a staging point for attacks on Iraq during the Gulf War. It support would be key to any U.S. operation. Washington also strongly supported Turkey's push to take over the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's party had only 1 percent of the vote and his coalition partners were below the 10 percent threshold needed for entry into parliament.
"We committed suicide," Ecevit said, referring to parliament's agreement to hold elections 18 months early. Legislators agreed to the vote amid Ecevit's failing health.
The last time a leader from the Islamic movement led a government was in 1996, when Necmettin Erbakan became the first-ever pro-Islamic premier to take office in overwhelmingly Muslim but secular Turkey.
Erbakan angered the powerful military, which regards itself as the guardian of Turkey's 80-year-long tradition of secularism, by emphasizing the country's Islamic heritage. He was forced from government in 1997 amid strong pressure from the military.
The Justice party was established last year by lawmakers from an earlier banned pro-Islamic party and has already sparked tensions with the staunchly secular establishment.
Sunday's elections came amid the country's worst economic crisis since World War II — a crisis many blame on Ecevit.
During the campaign, the Justice party said it would concentrate on social welfare and support Turkey's $31 billion IMF-backed recovery program.
A party with Islamic roots taking power could lead to instability and tensions in the region. Observers point out that many of the party's loyalists were members of previous more radical movement and may not be satisfied with the non-confrontational attitude adopted by their leaders.
But others point out that if the party continues its moderate stance, it could serve as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe as Islamic radicalism is increasing.
"It will tell people that there is a case where Islam is compatible with democracy. It will be a wonderful message out to the world and to Muslim countries," said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.