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One million Turks protest ahead of early elections

IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) - At least a million people took to the streets in Turkey’s third city on Sunday for the fourth major rally in a month against the Islamist-rooted government ahead of elections in July.

Organizers, who accuse the government of seeking to undermine separation of religion and state in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, hoped the protest would unite the fragmented opposition ahead of the parliamentary polls.

People flocked to Izmir from across Turkey, undeterred by a bombing in the port city that killed one man and injured 14 on Saturday. It was not clear who was behind the market attack.

Streets and buildings, including army barracks, were covered in a sea of red Turkish flags and portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey.

“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” the protesters, predominantly urban middle class people at this festive rally, chanted. “No to sharia (Islamic law).”

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s reformist AK Party government has been forced to call the July 22 vote months ahead of schedule to defuse a deep conflict with Turkey’s secularists over a recent presidential vote.

The powerful secular elite, including opposition parties, top judges and army generals, successfully blocked Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul’s election. They feared the ex-Islamist might try as president to break the separation of religion and state, a claim Gul and his AK Party strongly deny.

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Under single AK Party rule, Turkey has achieved the start of EU membership talks and posted strong economic growth and low inflation after years of weak coalition governments and chronic economic instability and corruption.

“SILENT MAJORITY”

“The AK Party will most likely win the elections but they will have to take into account these demonstrations and what people are saying. They can’t remain arrogant any more,” said Haluk Berk, a doctor who also teaches at an Izmir university.

“The silent majority is finally coming out,” he said, standing alongside his teenage son.

Turkey’s main opposition center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the smaller leftist Democratic Left Party (DSP) -- which are in talks to form an alliance -- hope to use the rally to build momentum ahead of the election.

Police said at least a million people attended the seaside rally. Organizers, mainly leftwing groups, had hoped to attract 2 million people. The protest, which was full of nationalist chants, ended by early evening.

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The success in derailing the AK Party’s plans to have Gul elected president has given opposition parties new confidence, analysts say. But they are racing against time to come up with credible election manifestos.

“Many young people don’t feel opposition parties represent them. They don’t know who to vote for. That’s the challenge for the opposition,” said professor Dogu Ergil of Ankara University.

Opinion polls tip the center-right AK Party to win most votes, but it may fail to win an outright majority, forcing it to form a coalition government.

Secularists say Erdogan has failed to address a deep-rooted problem for a growing population of 74 million -- how to assuage the secularists’ fears while accommodating his supporters who want a greater role for Islam in their lives.

Critics accuse the AK Party of undermining secularism by trying to ease restrictions on the Muslim headscarf and promoting religiously minded supporters within the bureaucracy.

“As a woman, I ... feel afraid that one day I have to wear the headscarf and I blame the AK Party,” said teacher Deniz Erbulen, 26, holding a Turkish flag.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Istanbul

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