Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party won parliamentary elections by a big margin Sunday in a contest that had pitted the government against opponents warning of a threat to secular traditions. The victory by the Justice and Development Party signaled continuity in economic reforms and in Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. However, the new government was likely to face persistent tension over the role of Islam in society, and questions about how to deal with Kurdish rebel violence.
Turkish Jews pushed to vote for secularists
Analysis: Islamist win may shift balance of power
The ruling party returned to power with a smaller majority than it had won in 2002 elections, but its officials expressed surprise with how well they did in an election called early to defuse a showdown with the military-backed, secular establishment.
Mehmet Ali Sahin, a deputy prime minister, said he had expected the ruling party to win between 305 and 310 seats in the 550-member Parliament, a reduction from the nearly two-thirds majority it had before.
Instead, with more than 96 percent of votes counted, television news channels were projecting the ruling party had won 342 seats.
Two secular parties, the Republican People's Party and the Nationalist Action Party, won 112 seats and 70 seats, respectively, the stations said.
Independents backed by a pro-Kurdish party seeking more rights for the ethnic minority won 23 of the remaining 26 seats, the stations said.
Ruling party supporters clapped, danced and waved flags depicting the party symbol, a light bulb, outside the party's office in Istanbul. They chanted the name of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In Ankara, the capital, a jubilant crowd of several hundred whooped as they watched election results on a big TV screen set up outside party headquarters.
"We are very happy," university student Reyhan Aksoy said. "God willing, great days await us."
Many people cut short vacations to head home to cast their ballots, and lines at some polling stations were long. In Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, police stood guard outside schools serving as polling stations.
Turkey has made big strides after the economic and political chaos of past decades, but some feared the vote could deepen divisions in the mostly Muslim nation of 70 million.
After the victory, Erdogan addressed supporters at the rally in Ankara, vowing to work for national unity.
"Democracy has passed a very important test," Erdogan said. "Whoever you have voted for ... We respect your choices. We regard your differences as part of our pluralist democracy. It is our responsibility to safeguard this richness."
Fourteen parties and 700 independent candidates competed for a total of 42.5 million eligible voters. Voting is compulsory in Turkey, though fines for failing to vote are rarely imposed, and 2002 election turnout was 79 percent.
Turnout was more than 80 percent, and voting was largely peaceful, election officials said.
Parties must win at least 10 percent of the votes in order to be represented in Parliament, a high threshold that has drawn some criticism as being undemocratic.
TV stations said that, with nearly all the votes counted, the ruling party had won 46.9 percent, even though it won a bigger percentage of seats at the expense of small parties that failed to clear the threshold.
Turkey has an emboldened class of devout Muslims, led by a ruling party willing to pursue Western-style reforms to strengthen the economy and join the European Union. Under Erdogan inflation has dropped, foreign investment has increased, and the economy has grown at an annual average of 7 percent.
"I hope unemployment will decrease and the economy will get better," said Tarik Karakus, a taxi driver who voted for Erdogan's party.
The ruling party's success has been touted as proof that Islam and democracy can coexist, although its detractors accuse Erdogan and his allies of plotting to scrap Turkey's secular traditions despite their openness to the West.
Many of these government opponents constitute a traditional elite and have roots in state institutions such as the courts and the military, guardians of the secular legacy of national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
They argue that personal freedoms - such as the right to drink alcohol or a woman's choice of clothing - are in peril, but they have more of an authoritarian background and less of a reformist record than the government.
One of Parliament's first jobs will be to elect a president. The post is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent has the power to veto legislative bills and government appointments.
In May, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul abandoned his presidential bid after opponents said Gul's election would remove the last obstacle to an Islamic takeover of government, and the military - instigator of past coups - threatened to intervene to safeguard secularism.
Voters were divided over whether the ruling party's renewed mandate would embolden it in policy decisions, or whether it would take extra steps to avoid confrontation.
"The party appears to be acting more carefully: it has for instance, scratched deputies that had origins in the Islamic movement from their list of candidates," said Ali Tekin, an Istanbul voter.
"However, it may, acting on the strength of the majority it received, attempt to do things which would not please the military," he said.
Another task for the government will be to decide whether NATO-member Turkey should stage an offensive into northern Iraq against separatist Kurdish rebels who have bases there.
Erdogan warned the incursion could happen if security talks with Iraq and the US fail. He has invited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to visit Turkey, but no date has been set, the Iraqi government said.