Turkish elections are just over three weeks away, and the country's hottest politician is ... not even in the race.
Not officially, anyway. Last month, an electoral board ruled that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the Islamically oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP), was ineligible to run because he was convicted of sedition in 1998.
But Mr. Erdogan's meteoric rise to popularity does not appear to be losing steam. On the contrary, the party he founded last year on the ashes of the Islamist Welfare Party, disbanded in 1997 by Turkey's secular establishment, seems only to have gained supporters since the Supreme Electoral Board ruled he was unqualified to run.
The decision to ban Erdogan and three other controversial figures from running for office comes at a particularly sensitive moment a time when Turks are reeling from an economic crisis, trying to win entry into the EU, and grappling with Washington's plans to attack their neighbor, Iraq.
The US will need Turkey, a NATO ally, for both political support and the use of air bases for a strike against Iraq. But popular backing here for a war against Iraq is almost nonexistent and a government run by the AKP looks likely to be even less inclined to support US action.
Erdogan, charismatic and not yet 50, stands out among other politicians: Average Turks see him and the party he built as clean, conservative, and concerned with the little guy. He says he is now focused on reforming the country's ailing economy and winning a place for Turkey in the European Union (EU). But his conviction four years ago stemmed from a rally at which he spoke with jihad-type undertones. He read from a poem which included the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."
Now, Erdogan sits at the helm of the AKP, which pollsters predict will be the big winner next month, raking in about 30 percent of the vote up from about 25 percent when Erdogan was actually in the race.
But what role Erdogan will play is a mystery that people around Turkey are trying to decipher.
"The problems are going to start from Minute One, because as head of party and as a shadow prime minister, Erdogan will have to play this game of someone else running the government," says Dr. Ilter Turan, a political science professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.
A number of issues have propelled Ergodan's party toward the top. Foremost among them are the state secularism that some feel has gone too far such as banning women in Muslim headscarves from official government offices and universities. Moreover, middle-of-the-roaders and people fed up with older political parties may be turning to AKP precisely because the ban on Erdogan's candidacy has given him an aura of a beleaguered underdog.
And, unlike some of Turkey's parties that have been built around the magnetism of one leader and by wearing the mantle of Islam, AKP has far more than Erdogan behind it. "This is a party with a whole leadership cadre one man does not mean the end of the party," adds Turan. "They are well-organized and they know how to reach the masses."
When Motherland, a pro-business party, has a $1000-a-head fundraising dinner at the Sheraton, he points out, the AKP has a picnic with grilled kebabs. More than any other, the party has built up a reputation for helping the struggling working class.
AKP and their predecessors in the Welfare Party, for example, have made a tradition of organizing mass circumcision parties and group weddings for people who cannot afford to have a party that dignifies the occasion.
Semra Senturk, going from poor to poorer in Turkey's recent economic crisis, could never have afforded to throw a big bash for her 8-year-old son's circumcision this summer. But thanks to Islamist politicians who started holding such events free of cost, municipalities around Istanbul now provide the service.
As such, voters like Mrs. Senturk are tilting heavily in favor of the AKP.
"I just want to give them a chance. I trust Erdogan. He was very good when he was the mayor," says Senturk, as her son one of 270 boys who benefited from the district's mass circumcision ceremony this summer peeks around the doorway with his cousin. As she stands at the door of her home, a partly subterranean slice of painted cement wedged into the tight line of ramshackle rowhouses that fill the Kustape neighborhood of Turkey's capital, she clutches a spray bottle of cleaning fluid in her daily fight to beat back poverty's grime.
"We've already seen what the other politicians have done," she sighs, "which is nothing."
Among those who have joined the list of AKP's top candidates for election include economic reformers, people who want Turkey to be integrated into the European Union, and women who don't wear Islamic headscarves, AKP leaders are quick to point out.
"We established a new political party. Definitely we are trying to be good Muslims, because we believe in that, but that is on an individual level," says Abdullah Gul, the party's deputy chairman and the man most likely to serve as prime minister while Erdogan wields power from behind the scenes. The idea of having a more Islamic nature to public life in Turkey is something "we think is not realistic anymore," he adds.
AKP leaders say they would prefer to be known as a party which will fight corruption, heal Turkey's ailing economy, and help guide it into the European Union, which it sees, in part, as its ticket to greater freedom of religious expression. One group of women waiting outside a local council office on a recent afternoon to make sure they were registered to vote say they plan to vote for the AKP to end discrimination against religious women. They wear headscarves, which are not allowed in government offices or universities.
"I have a daughter who is 10 years old, and I have to send her to religious education secretly," says Cevriye Carkci. "We have to send her to an unofficial school. If we are caught, they will shut it down," she says.
Erdogan won't be forced to wait in the wings forever. After the elections, a parliament dominated by the AKP could vote to change the law that has allowed the election board to keep Erdogan from running. By next February, analysts say, they could call new elections that would allow Erdogan to be prime minister.
"So what they say is, once the parliament convenes, they want to change the Constitution," says Ilnur Cevik, the editor of the Turkish Daily News in Ankara.
"He says he is the hero of the 'silent millions,' " says Cevik. "If he is not the prime minister, it will be awkward."