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Turkish Voters Head to Polls, Sunday

Turkish voters go to the polls in nationwide local elections on Sunday, March 29. The predominantly Kurdish Southeast, and in-particular Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, is seen as a key for the ruling Islamic- rooted AK party. In the last general election they scored a surprising victory over the pro-Kurdish DTP, and are aiming to do better this round. But the DTP are fighting back by focusing on women rights.

Earlier this month at least 50,000 people gathered in the heart of Diyarbakir to commemorate the birth of Mohammed. The meeting also saw strong condemnation of Israel and Jews over the attack by Israeli forces on Gaza last January. It was largest religious gathering the city has seen in living memory. One of those attending was a man named Ahnet.

Every year he says, this meeting is getting bigger, in the past only a few villagers would come, but now most of the villagers are coming. He says people are again becoming more and more aware of their religion. With Islam he says, there must be unity so our number has to grow.

The predominantly Kurdish southeast had traditionally been amongst the most religious regions in Turkey. That was until the 20-year long insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy. With the pro-secular PKK's influence in the last few years starting to ebb in the region, religion has slowly re-emerged.

The Tariqats go back centuries and are widely seen as an intrinsic part of Kurdish cultural life. In the last few years they have been expanding their influence by building schools offering free education and housing the poor.

They are now throwing their support behind the Islamic- rooted Justice and Development party, or AKP, which is making a bid to unseat the pro- Kurdish Democratic Society Party or DTP.

In the 2007 general election, the Tariqats helped the AKP party score a shocking victory over the DTP, pushing the party into second place. Now their goal is the control of Diyarbakir.

But the DTP's mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, is fighting back by focusing on women's rights in the region.

Visiting one of the women's centers set up by him, he is pushing the message that his party is one of rights and services. His campaign is targeting women in particular. Baydemir says women are crucial to his party.

He says one of ideological pillars of the party and local government is the rights of women. He says, we see that we are making the whole of society more free when we make women more active in social political and economic life. But he says, this does not mean we are against religion, which is what the AKP party is claiming. He says we respect everyone's right to their religious beliefs and people are now understanding this.

The party has made sure that women see their future tied to the success of the party by making it mandatory that it has a 40 percent quota for female representation.

One woman's view is typical of many.

She says the DTP is the only party that gives importance for the struggle of women for freedom and equality. She says her neighborhood is the biggest in Diyarbakir and it has a local woman as mayor and she is standing again. She says, I remember in the past when a religious party was last in power here, they shut down all the women's centers. It will be disaster for women if they come to power again.

Such accusations are angrily denied by the AKP. The party claims it too is committed to improving women's representation.

As the campaining continues, tensions are mounting between the two parties. The DTP is accusing the AKP of trying to buy votes with free coal and food, while the AKP is accusing the DTP of intimidating its supporters.

Abdurrahman Kurt is an AKP member of parliament for Diyarbakir. He worries the trading of sharp barbs between the two parties is part of a worrying trend.

"DTP or religious groups if they try to rule the other one according to their beliefs or ideology these kinds of differences will clash with each other. This is a danger that we have to think about it. I don't want our future to be created like this, because this is really big danger for this area. So the common way for creating a comfortable life for all sides of the society is to develop the democracy between all groups," Kurt said.

Whatever the result of this Sunday's poll, the deep divisions are expected to continue, with two powerful forces of secularism and religion set to continue to battle for control and influence. Analysts warn unless they can learn to live with one another, the region - which has already endured two decades of conflict - could face the prospect of a new confrontation.