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ANKARA (Reuters) - Seven decades after his death, growing numbers of Turks are flocking to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of modern Turkey, to pay their respects and affirm their loyalty to his republic.
This year some 10 million people are expected to visit the tomb of Ataturk, which means "father of the Turks", and the museum documenting the independence war and Ataturk's feats -- up from 8.2 million in 2006 and 3.8 million in 2005.
This increased interest reflects anxiety over Turkey's direction as presidential elections loom, say visitors to the massive stone sanctuary in the heart of the capital Ankara.
Turkey, a secular but Muslim country spanning Europe and Asia, is deeply divided over whether Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist who says he has broken with his past and is now a centre-right politician, should run for president.
"We (students) personally organized the trip to the mausoleum because of Turkey's recent developments. We wanted to remember the past," said Ercin Senturk, an 18-year-old civil engineering student at Ankara's METU university.
For most Turks the presidential post is closely tied up with their identity because it is the position that was first held by Ataturk.
Ataturk, who died in 1938, enjoys heroic status in Turkey due to his battlefield successes against occupying forces during the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One.
Independence in 1923 and a series of radical social reforms aimed at turning Turkey into a European-style democracy also guaranteed Ataturk's unique place in Turkish hearts.
The Guner family, who strongly revere Ataturk and his secularist legacy, traveled hundreds of miles (km) to make their first visit to the mausoleum with their six-year-old daughter Oyku, who attends a school teaching the basic "Kemalist" principles of the republic.
Kemalism, its name taken from Ataturk's surname, represents secularism, nationalism and a centralized state -- the principles Ataturk founded the republic on.
Ataturk is remembered for building a secular nation on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, giving women the right to vote, modernizing the education system and adopting a new alphabet.
"We are here for Ataturk ... He's our savior and our leader. He's the person who shows us the way," said neurosurgeon Alp Ilhami Guner, 37, as he wiped away tears.
His wife Ebru, who is also a doctor, wanted their daughter to see how their country achieved freedom against the odds.
"If one day she (Oyku) fights for the republic she will not be frightened of death," Ebru said, standing next to a wax model of Ataturk.
The admiration and patriotism he inspires may surprise some, but for many Turks who are taught from early childhood of his achievements, Ataturk is the glue holding Turkey together.
"Now we are worried about the collapse of the Kemalist state," said Mustafa Ozbek, head of the powerful Turkish Metal Union. "Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into an Islamic state."
"A person who has kneeled at the feet of a radical Islamist cannot occupy the seat of Ataturk," said Ozbek, referring to a visit Erdogan paid in 1985 to a militant leader in Afghanistan.
Erdogan's AK Party, formed by former members of a banned Islamist party, denies any Islamist agenda. Since winning a general election in 2002 it has presided over strong economic growth and the launch of European Union entry talks.
The secularist establishment, including the armed forces, has tried hard to stop Erdogan from running for president and may yet succeed.
But the AK Party has a large enough majority in parliament to nominate him and then vote him in to the seven-year post. The party is expected to make public its candidate on April 18.
"They can't stop him. A lot of water has already passed under the bridge," said Fikret Baskaya, a left-wing academic and author who has spent 2.5 years in jail for his views.
Critics accuse hard-line Kemalists of using Ataturk and his legacy to prevent Turkey becoming a more modern, tolerant and open-minded society.
"Secularism is a pretext (for Erdogan's opponents). It's about power and control of state institutions," Baskaya said.
The Kemalist Thought Association, headed by a former general now under investigation for an alleged coup plot, has called for a mass pro-secularist protest in Ankara on April 14.
But some Kemalists are resigned to Erdogan taking over, even though in this post he would be able to appoint judges, university rectors and other top officials. The president is also commander of the country's armed forces.
"The government will not listen (to us)," the association's deputy head, Dursun Ali Ercan, said.
Retired teacher Halil Karakus, 71, said that even though he preferred a president who would unify this country of 74 million people, he doubted Erdogan's election would trigger turmoil.
"I think the new president should be someone looking to the future... (because) the real problems in Turkey are health, unemployment and the economy," said Karakus, while looking at an oil painting depicting Ataturk directing his troops into battle.