GWEN IFILL: Last night, supporters of Turkey's leading Islamist party celebrated its domination of yesterday's elections.
The Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP won a ruling majority in parliament with 34 percent of the votes. That's almost double the tally of its strongest rival, a staunchly secular party. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, chairs the AKP.
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Translated): We wanted Turkey to wake up for a different hope on the 4th of November, and our expectation has come through.
GWEN IFILL: Erdogan says Ankara will maintain strong relations with Europe and Washington. For the US, Turkey's southern airbases would likely play a central role in an attack on Iraq, but Erdogan opposes a strike because the gulf war of a decade ago drove refugees into Turkey.
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Translated): Previously, the American authorities said if they don't find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they are going to stop the pressure on this issue. Our hope is to finally reach peace in that process.
GWEN IFILL: But yesterday, Erdogan conceded he would reluctantly support a strike in Iraq if the UN gives the go-ahead.
RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Translated): We are bound by the decision of the United Nations. We cannot say anything before we find out the UN's view.
GWEN IFILL: In Washington, the State Department spokesman applauded the victors.
RICHARD BOUCHER: Let us, at this point, congratulate the Justice and Development Party on its electoral success in yesterday's parliamentary elections. We also congratulate the Turkish people in demonstrating, through their conduct of the election, the vibrancy of Turkey's democracy.
GWEN IFILL: Turkey's 70 million people are overwhelmingly Muslim, but its government has maintained strict separation between mosque and state. In 1923, ruler Kemal Ataturk formed the republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, using the west as his model. The military has enforced that secular model. Retired General Amagan Kuloglu:
GEN. ARMAGAN KULOGLU (Ret.). ASAM Center for Eurasian & Strategic Studies: The secularism is very important for Turkey, and Turks are, of course, very sensitive about the subject because if we lose secularism, we can go to the Middle Ages.
GWEN IFILL: The winning party, the AKP, is the political descendant of Islamist and secular forces. Its leaders play down its Islamist roots. But those who favor secular government worry that Erdogan may blur the lines, for example, by allowing women to wear religious head scarves in government offices.
The debate over secularism has yielded an important political twist: Erdogan is barred from holding office because he was convicted in 1998 of reading a religious poem. So even though his party won the election, he cannot become Turkey's next prime minister, but many voters said they didn't vote on the religion issue. They, like many Americans, are worried about the economy.
VOTER (Translated): I gave my vote to social Democrats, but I believe the AKP is a good opportunity for change, and the Turkish public delivered a stinging blow to the ruling parties.
VOTER (Translated ): I am happy to see the AKP in the power, and in my opinion Erdogan should be the prime minister.
GWEN IFILL: Party leaders will meet tomorrow to discuss who will become the prime minister.
GWEN IFILL: We get more on the Turkish election results from Mark Parris, who served as US Ambassador to Turkey in the Clinton administration; He is now a retired career diplomat; and Asla Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish newspaper Sabah. She's also an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center, a Washington research organization focusing on southeast Europe.
Ms. Aydintasbas, the face of victory in this case was not the face of the victor. Tell us about the victor or the putative victor . Who is he?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Well, Mr. Erdogan is the former mayor of Istanbul. He was enormously popular during his mayor-ship. He has his political roots go back to Turkey's Islamist politics, actually, he today refuses the label Islamist and in fact he has been trying to position his party as a force of the center, reposition it as a force of the center. But in the past of course he has been involved with political Islamist parties. During his mayor-ship he did enormously well, he was very popular. He was at the helm of this city of 12 million.
And later on, he was among the group of young reformist Islamists, you could call them moderate Islamists, who broke off from the more traditional Islamist party, welfare party, to establish this new party, which now yesterday won a landslide victory in elections. He does call himself moderate. He no longer describes himself as an Islamist. That said, mainstream establishment parties have questioned whether or not he had really changed. But I think the vote yesterday shows that the voters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Parris, what is the difference, that label, being an Islamist or being a Muslim Democrat as he prefers to call himself, and what happens to this party?
MARK PARRIS: Well, you can get tied up with terminology. At the end of the day I think, that as Asla was suggesting, Turkey's electorate has considered the terminology that they've used to describe themselves in the current election which is moderate, secular, western oriented, committed to following through on programs like the IMF economic reform program. And in the absence of credible alternatives among many of the other parties have concluded that this is Turkey's best option at the moment in terms of reversing some of the adverse economic and social trends of recent years.
GWEN IFILL: If Erdogan is not the next prime minister, who is the next prime minister, is it someone from his party?
MARK PARRIS: Well, I think that's one of the questions that this election has left unresolved. The assumption has to be that it will be from his party given the magnitude of their victory. But there are some procedural hurdles that will have to be dealt with before we know exactly who it's going to be. First of all the party leadership will have to meet and among them decide who the right person should be. It's interesting that Mr. Erdogan has not during the campaign identified who this person would be, so Turkey has selected a party without selecting a prime minister. Once that happens, President Cesar will presumably ask that person to try to form the government.
GWEN IFILL: So, Ms. Aydinstasbas, we're here trying to figure out who the leader is and what that relationship will be - what that will mean for the relationship with the United States and any imminent war in Iraq. Is there any way that you can read those tea leaves for us?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Well, the early signals from this party is that they are going to stick pretty much to the established policies of the Turkish state. They have already signaled that they would like to have warm ties not just with United States, but even European Union and Israel, an ally of Turkey. I think a great test of that relationship will be the upcoming US operation in Iraq, if that happens anytime soon. That will be a major test. The party leaders have given mixed signals over the last few days, but its stated policies - in other words - our only way of measuring what this party intends to do -- is that they are likely to consult with Turkey's establishment in military and that if it is, and they are willing to go along an operation especially if it is done through after a UN vote of some sort.
When I was in Turkey recently and was surprised to hear Erdogan in a speech give, say that he would, if the United States takes steps to, to quote him exactly, if United States takes steps, he said, to liberate Iraqi people, we would respect that. And I think that was really far out for Turkish political rhetoric. I think that does signal that he is willing to go along with US policies. He was very much criticized for saying that, though, I should add.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Parris, how important a distinction or how important is the religious distinction in the formation of this new government, the idea that this, that this new leadership, whoever it turns out, coming from an Islamist background, is that fundamental, the whole head scarf issue, whether women are allowed to wear them in public places or not, for instance?
MARK PARRIS: Well, I think it's important to understand that one thing that this, these election results do not mean is that 35 percent of the Turkish electorate has just voted for Islamic agenda. Actually quite the opposite -- probably the majority of the votes that this party received were new votes, were votes that had not been cast for any of its Islamic predecessor parties, but came rather out of most likely the traditional secular center right parties, which did so badly in the elections. This result occurred at least partly because the AK Party was able to rebrand itself in non-religious trappings.
Again, they put up Ataturk posters on their walls, they're wearing business suits and ties, they have said all if the right things about being secular, about being mainstream and about not being a religious party per se -- emphasizing that religion is a matter of personal choice. There is, frankly, doubt on the part of many Turks that they mean what they say. And time will tell the extent to which they have genuinely divorced themselves from a religious agenda in favor of a more mainstream agenda for Turkey.
GWEN IFILL: First let me apologize for getting your name wrong, Ambassador Parris. Let me ask to you follow up on that. Does this include the military --traditionally the guardians of this secular democracy?
MARK PARRIS: I would suggest it includes at least 65 percent of the population that didn't vote for AK Party on this occasion and probably a large significant number of those who did. The military is certainly among that number. The reality is that AK does not own this 35 percent that they have won. And to keep them, they will have to pursue an agenda which avoids some of the hot button social issues that have caused problems for some of its successors, like heal scarves, like serving alcoholic beverages at official functions. Those kinds of issues sound funny in an American context, but they go very keep to what Turkey is all about in the minds of many Turks, and therefore yes the military and secular establishment but also a significant indeed a majority of the rest of the country will also be looking very careful let at these things.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Aydintasbas, the ambassador makes an important point, there are 18 political parties running in this election, so he got 34 percent of the vote or the AK got 34 percent of the vote, but there were 65 percent who voted for someone else. In part, I gather this is because of the enduring Turkish recession, the bad shape that the economy is in. What effect does that have?
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Exactly. I agree with the Ambassador Parris. This is largely being a protest vote, in my view. It's, it is to register frustration of Turkish voters, frustration with lack of leadership among the mainstream political parties, the bickering on the left, center left and center right. The failure to deliver economic relief -- and in general, a general sense of dissatisfaction with leadership we have, especially in terms of dealing with corruption.
In fact, as you pointed out, Turkey is currently going through one of the worst recessions in its history, the worst since the Second World War. Just last year the economy shrank by 9.4 percent, unemployment is rampant, so is corruption. And I think the previous coalition government was largely seen as ineffective in delivering economic relief. The International Monetary Fund program, the current IMF program in Turkey is very unpopular. And this was in every sense an effort to register the satisfaction.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Parris, finally, not knowing who we're going to be dealing with must cause us some concern, how does the United States plot out its goals in Turkey when they don't know at least for another month or so who the actual new prime minister is going to be?
MARK PARRIS: Well, during that interim period, the prime minister, who by the latest polls represents 1.1 percent of the population, remains in the chair. And the United States will continue to work with Turkey's elected officials. This is a relationship that is very well founded and we've been friends for a long time, we've cooperated together on a lot of difficult issues. The channels of communication through our career diplomats, through our military establishments are proven and effective. In fact the Turkish chief of staff is visiting Washington beginning today on a previously scheduled visit. So I have no doubt that we'll be able to carry out business.
GWEN IFILL: May I also ask will that be the same with the European Union?
MARK PARRIS: I think it will be the same for everybody during this interim period. The interesting question will be, what happens if you have an AK prime minister who has been appointed by the party and duly brought into office, and what will his relation to Mr. Erdogan be, that's the real question.
GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Parris, and Asla Aydintasbas, thank you both for joining us.
ASLA AYDINTASBAS: Thank you.
MARK PARRIS: Thank you.