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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Turkey Votes for a New Parliament

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turks voted for a new parliament Sunday in a contest viewed as pivotal in determining the balance between Islam and secularism in this nation of more than 70 million.

Many people cut short vacations to head home to cast their ballots, and lines at some polling stations were long, with people voting early to avoid the summer heat. In Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, traffic jammed some main roads and police officers stood guard outside the gates of schools serving as polling stations.

The new parliament faces a host of challenges, including a presidential election, violence by Kurdish rebels and a growing divide over the role of Islam in society.

The election was called early to defuse a political crisis over the Islamic-oriented ruling party's choice of presidential candidate, and the three-month campaign was peaceful. 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.

After casting his vote, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealed for national unity and criticized parties that he said tried to make gains through negative campaigning, Dogan news agency reported.

"We are the strongest advocates of a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law," Erdogan said. "I call on all leaders not to close their doors. Let's get around a table and discuss the problems of Turkey's democracy and make the rule of law reign."

Polls closed by 5 p.m. and election workers began counting ballots by hand. Fourteen parties and 700 independent candidates are competing for a total of 42.5 million eligible voters. Voting is compulsory in Turkey, though fines for failing to vote are rarely imposed and turnout was 79 percent in elections in 2002.

Several thousand villagers reportedly refused to vote, largely because of local grievances. But Nevzat Yukselen, an election official, said the nationwide process was going smoothly. There were no reports of violence.

"Voter participation has been very high, and it will be good for the country," he said.

The city of Adana on the Mediterranean coast provided 850 buses and other vehicles so people in nearby resort towns could travel back to the city center to vote. In Ankara, a mother gave her ballot to her 1-year-old daughter -- dressed in a festive, pink dress and headband -- to drop into the polling box.

Parties must win at least 10 percent of the votes in order to be represented in the parliament, a high threshold that has drawn some criticism as being undemocratic.

The country has an emboldened class of devout Muslims, led by a ruling party with a willingness to pursue Western-style reforms in order to strengthen the economy and join the European Union. Erdogan has presided over strong economic results, including reduced inflation, more foreign investment and average annual growth of 7 percent.