ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkish voters handed the Islamist- influenced ruling party a decisive victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, rewarding it for stewardship of the country's robust economy but raising the specter of bitter new quarrels over the feared erosion of Turkey's secular traditions.
With more than two-thirds of the votes counted, the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, garnered about 48 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results - a substantial increase over the 34 percent it received in elections five years ago when it came to power.
The vote could influence Turkey's drive to become the first Muslim-dominated country to join the European Union. While secularist parties have been cool to the idea, the AKP has vowed to press ahead with that bid despite early rebuffs.
"With this vote, Turkey said no to insularity, no to closing in on itself," said Cengiz Candar, a leading political columnist.
Moderate and officially secular Turkey, a NATO member, is viewed as a strategic bridge to a Muslim world that is increasingly mistrustful of the West. Successive Turkish governments have maintained close ties with Muslim neighbors even while pursuing divergent policies such as a cordial relationship with Israel.
The election results represented a crushing defeat for Turkey's secular-minded main opposition party, which trailed with about 20 percent of the vote. But because of rules governing the allocation of parliament seats, the opposition will have some ability to stymie ruling party initiatives, including the AKP's drive to have one of its own elected as the country's president - the same battle that triggered the early elections.
Turkey's powerful military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular system put in place 84 years ago, has made none-too-subtle threats to intervene if it believes the ruling party is acting in conflict with the secular principles enshrined in the constitution.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sought to strike a conciliatory tone in his victory speech, paying homage to Kemal Ataturk, the republic's founder, and offering assurances that the party's agenda is centered on the pro-business, free-market policies that have generated unprecedented prosperity since it took office.
"We would like to see Turkey as one, as united," the 53-year-old leader said to supporters who cheered and waved the red national flag. "Our goal is to realize the aim of Ataturk, to carry our country to the levels of modern civilization."
Celebrants took to the streets near AKP headquarters in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara, setting off fireworks and handing out sweets.
During the party's tenure, inflation has been tamed, annual growth has run to 7 percent, unemployment has leveled off and the national currency has strengthened. The economic boom has brought a middle-class lifestyle within reach of millions of Turks, including many in the party's religiously conservative core constituency.
"The lively economy has given confidence to the people," said Ertugrul Ozkok, editor in chief of the mainstream newspaper Hurriyet. "That was reflected in this vote."
To many observers, the election marked another milestone in the development of Turkey's brand of political Islam. The AKP is an offshoot of a more rigorously Islamist party, but Erdogan and other senior party figures have made little effort to bring personal piety into the public sphere.
That has done little to quell secularists' wariness. Many are convinced that the AKP harbors a hidden Islamist agenda, one now more likely to make inroads into public policy.
"We see the danger of Sharia and fundamentalism," said Hatice Ozbay, a volunteer for the main secular group, the Republican People's Party, known in Turkish as the CHP. "We will keep on fighting that."
Of the 14 parties that contested the elections, only three reached the vote threshold of 10 percent required to enter parliament - the AKP, the CHP and the far-right National Movement Party.
A new element in the parliamentary mix is the election of about 20 Kurdish candidates who ran as independents to avoid having to reach the vote threshold for parties. Their accession into parliament, the first by Kurds in more than 15 years, comes as the government is weighing an incursion into northern Iraq to fight Kurdish rebels.
The United States and other Western countries, allies of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, strongly oppose such a move. But Erdogan probably will come under heavy domestic pressure to rein in the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Scores of Turkish soldiers have been killed this year in clashes with the rebels.
"Our struggle against terrorism will continue," the prime minister pledged in his victory speech. "Our safety will be protected."
Lawmakers are to choose a new president within 30 days. With the opposition still stung by defeat, that could result in the same deadlock that occurred in April, when the AKP put forth Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate.
Gul's wife wears a Muslim headscarf, and secularists were appalled by the notion of a first lady in Islamic dress. Some of the largest protests in the country's modern history were held to decry Gul's candidacy.
After hints of intervention by the army, and an unfavorable ruling by the secular-dominated Constitutional Court, the AKP abandoned the bid to elect Gul and called early national elections. But the party says it is determined to claim the presidency, a post that many secularists regard as their birthright, with a bloodline leading back to Ataturk.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.