Turkish voters head to the polls Sunday to elect a new government.  From Istanbul, Dorian Jones reports for VOA that the election is viewed by the ruling Justice and Development Party and its nationalist rivals as a key test for country's secular democracy.

Candidates of the 14 competing parties tried to win over voters until the last minute in what has been an exceptionally bitter campaign.  The opposition parties charge the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a threat to the secular state.

The election was called four months early after the opposition refused to agree to the ruling party's candidate for president, Abdullah Gul, saying his Islamic background presented a threat to Turkey's secular status. 

Political scientist Ali Carkoglu teaches at Istanbul's Sabanci University.  He says the opposition used the deadlock over the presidency to good advantage during the campaign.

"I think the opposition parties have very successfully from their perspective made the case that the still unresolved election of the president presents a salient threat to the secularist republic principles," he said.

The first task of the incoming parliament will be to elect the next president, who has important powers in appointing key officials, including members of the constitutional court. 

Prime Minister Erdogan, in his campaign, has emphasized Turkey's economic advances during his five years as prime minister, and it is in large part because of the country's improving economy that Mr. Erdogan's party is expected to win. 

But in the last few weeks, according to polls, his Justice and Development Party has been losing votes to the far right National Action Party, which has strongly criticized Mr. Erdogan over the increasing attacks by Kurdish separatist forces in the Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey. 
Dozens of Kurdish nationalists are standing as independents in the southeast of the country, with as many 35 expected to enter parliament.