ISTANBUL - Initial results showed Turkey's ruling AK Party was on course for a solid victory in Sunday's parliamentary election to give Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan a third term, news channels said.

With 50 percent of the votes counted, Erdogan's AK had 53 percent and was set to win four more years of single-party rule in the nation that straddles Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

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The party needs 330 seats to have the power to call a referendum on a promised new constitution. Television projected the party would win 331 seats this time, but the count was fluctuating.

The count showed the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) CHP holding 23.6 percent of the vote, and the third largest party, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) with 13 percent, broadcaster Haberturk said.

A Muslim democracy and candidate for the European Union, Turkey has become an economic powerhouse and influential player on the global stage since Erdogan's AK Party swept to power in 2002.

In the 2007 election the AK, a socially conservative party, took 46.5 percent of the vote, and currently holds 331 seats.

There were no significant reports of trouble, even in the restive Kurdish region.

Casting his vote at a primary school being used as a polling station on the Asian side of the Bosphorus straits in Istanbul, Erdogan said the election was the time for the people to speak.

"I hope that the elections will contribute to strengthening of peace, rights and freedoms," he told the television cameras, as his headscarved wife and daughter stood nearby.

Erdogan's support has been built on his success in creating a booming economy and in ending decades of chaotic coalitions, military coups and failed international financial bailouts.

The only doubt hanging over Sunday's vote was about the margin of Erdogan's victory, given his desire to replace a constitution that was written in 1982, two years after a military coup.

There is speculation that Erdogan will seek to move to Turkey toward a more presidential system of government, with an ultimate aim of becoming president himself.

If the AK won 367 seats, Erdogan would have a large enough majority to pass a new constitution without having to call for a referendum.

"These elections are not about who wins, but about whether AK will win a strong majority to rewrite the constitution," Sinan Ulgen, from the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, told Reuters.

Erdogan, whose party evolved from banned Islamist movements, says the new charter will be based on democratic and pluralistic principles that will bring Turkey closer to EU standards.

While foreign investors traditionally have seen AK as the most market-friendly party, Erdogan's critics say he has an authoritarian streak.

Opponents also point to rampant use of wiretaps by state agencies, the detention of journalists critical of the government, nepotism and a widening gap between rich and poor.

The outcome of Sunday's vote will have repercussions outside Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally that has forged stronger ties with fellow Muslim neighbours.

Analysts have warned the new government will face sobering economic challenges. The current account deficit is ballooning, fiscal policy needs tightening to cool overheating and youth unemployment is high in a country where the average age is 28.

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