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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 22:26 GMT
Revamped party's date with destiny
Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a political rally
The party believes it will win Sunday's election

Turkey is set to vote on Sunday in an early general election, following the collapse of the present government. Most likely to win is the new Justice and Development Party - or AK Party.

In a small Anatolian town badly hit by an earthquake last year a rally is held by the AK Party - and it makes strenuous efforts to distance itself from the image of a traditional Islamic party. That is intentional - you can get arrested in Turkey for talking religion at a political rally.

Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an ex-footballer and was a popular former mayor of Istanbul until he was arrested for reciting a religious poem in public.

AK Party election posters
A democratic Muslim country is an attractive proposition to the West
But that was three years ago.

Mr Erdogan used to be openly Islamic and anti-Western.

Now he says he has changed - note the discreet moustache, no beard.

His newly formed AK Party is a mullah-free zone - pro-Nato, pro-EU and secular.

The women at the rally were standing in a separate female enclosure - but this being a country town, that was probably by choice.

The AK Party headquarters in Ankara are impressive, hi-tech - with lots of Westernised, educated young men who have studied in the United States.

I am first and foremost a Muslim. I am someone who tries hard to practice my faith

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Indeed the party leader's own children are enrolled at American universities.

According to their estimates, the party is on course for an overall majority. If so, they could change the laws and allow Mr Erdogan to be prime minister, but it is a big if.

"I am first and foremost a Muslim. I am someone who tries hard to practice my faith," Mr Erdogan says.

"But if you are asking me what our party identity is, then we are secular democratic conservatives. The AK Party is a synthesis of Islam and democracy without any conflict of interest."

AK grassroots

The Demenec family are AK Party members. The father is hoping to be an MP, the mother is a civil servant.

They used to live in the US - even the children speak fluent English and we had pizza and coke for dinner.

They are practising Muslims, but believe religion should be a private matter.

There are many people in the AK Party who in their private life practice religion, but that does not mean the party is an Islamic party

AK supporter

"You try to keep you own faith, religious practices secret," says the mother.

"There are many people in the AK Party who in their private life practise religion, but that does not mean that the AK Party is an Islamic party," says the father.

Of course, a democratic Muslim country is an attractive proposition to Turkey's Western allies.

"Right now, of the world 1.2 billion Muslims, most don't believe you can be a both a good Muslim and believe in Western values," says Grenville Byford, policy analyst at the Kennedy School of Government, who specialises in Turkish-American relations.

"And in the context of the war on terror, we cannot win that for as long as that is true," he says.

"I believe that Tayyip Erdogan and his friends believe that they can be good Muslims and that they can be democrats at the same time.

"If they can do that and form a government and bring peace and prosperity to Turkey, then I think you will find other Muslims following."

Founding father

Kemal Ataturk was the founder of modern Turkey. He would have been horrified to hear it described as a Muslim country.

Zenep Gogus
Gogus believes Turkey is about to let Islam in through the back door

He associated religion with backwardness - and wanted Turkey to be a modern secular Westernised state and many Turks even today hold strongly to that belief.

Zenep Gogus is one of them - she is a modern-day heir to Kemal Ataturk and a candidate for his Republican People's Party (RPP).

She believes Turkey is part of Europe. She sees herself as a European social-democrat, a fan of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's third way, and her biggest fear is that Turkey is about to let Islam into politics through the back door.

"We don't know what they really represent, so we feel very insecure about it, while of course they have a programme - but how will they apply it?" she says.

"Plus we don't know at this stage who will be their prime minister, which is strange enough to feel insecure," she says.

She says she does not believe the party when it says it is not Islamic.

Serious contender

Kemal Dervis, an ex-World Bank official and former finance minister, is a star turn for the RPP - and their only hope of defeating Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Dervis lived in the States for years, his wife is American, his mother is Dutch.

He is very popular in the west of the country, but goes down less well is the more backward, rural regions of eastern Turkey.

His fans claim he has turned around the Turkish economy, his enemies accuse him of being an American puppet and an IMF lackey.

"I personally believe it's very important not to mix religion and politics - and we've seen examples in the modern world of what happens when religious zealots use religion for political purposes," he says.

"It's a danger. I think a modern republic should be a republic of citizens regardless of their religion."

There are uncertain times ahead for the Turkish people.

If they elect a party whose leader is banned from ruling, it could result in political paralysis or more elections a few months later - all this at a time when the prospect of war looming on Turkey's border with Iraq.

Turkey's election

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