Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party is set to register large gains in municipal elections on Sunday. Since coming to power 1.5 years ago, the party has pushed through a host of democratic reforms aimed at securing Turkey's membership in the European Union. It has also helped stabilize Turkey's economy. Latest opinion polls show that the Justice and Development Party is set to gain more than the 35 percent of the national vote that propelled the conservative group to power in nationwide parliamentary polls in November 2002.

In fact, the party is expected to do so well in Sunday's elections that some analysts express concern that big gains may reignite Islamist fervor among some of the party leaders, who continue to advocate greater religious influence over daily life.

The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, formed by a group of former Islamists, is widely credited with energizing Turkey's decades long bid to become a full member of the European Union. Under its leadership, inflation has fallen to single digits for the first time, the Turkish lira has stabilized and exports soared.

For millions of Turks, long used to fractious and corrupt rule under a succession of coalition governments, the AKP has ushered in a period of unprecedented political stability as well. Polls show that its closest rival, the pro-secular Republican People's Party is trailing well behind, with about 20 percent of the vote.

Analysts say another reason why the AKP has increased its appeal is because it has succeeded in persuading millions of pro-secular Turks that it has no intention of steering Turkey away from the pro-Western and secular policies introduced 80 years ago by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

Moreover, AKP-run municipalities have performed well. Corruption is seen as minimal, and public services, especially for the urban poor, have improved.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan built his reputation as the mayor of Turkey's largest city, Istanbul. His achievements include bringing water to the once drought stricken city of 10 million.