-- The Justice and Development Party, leading the polls for Turkey's upcoming elections despite the banning of its leader for pro-Islamist propagandizing, has a clever way of describing its new agenda. "Our aim is to bring more democracy to Turkey and to increase the level of human rights," says Mehmet Muezzinoglu, its Istanbul chairman.

For some, that could mean more freedom of expression, more minority rights, more of what Europe is demanding of Turkey before it will consider offering it a place in the European Union. And for others -- perhaps half of the party's potential voters -- it could mean giving women the right to wear Muslim head scarves in schools and other public places, a concession that might well be regarded as a casus belli by the Turkish military.

That cloudy prospect is one of several reasons Turkey's vote for a new government in two weeks could be crucial to the Bush administration's emerging effort to transform the Middle East. Turkey's next administration will take power just weeks before the opening of the winter window for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and it will be a central player in any war and in the postwar construction of a new Iraqi order. It will likely be greeted by a disappointing and possibly destabilizing decision by the European Union, at its December summit, to again postpone action on Turkish membership while admitting the Greek half of Cyprus. It will assume control of an economy teetering on the edge of a financial crash and dependent on continuing aid from the International Monetary Fund.

And, if the polls hold up, all this will be mixed with the latest attempt by moderate Muslims to democratically acquire and exercise power in a NATO country that borders Europe and Iraq, where the Bush administration promises to install a representative government that would begin a regional makeover. Can Islam and democracy be safely combined? Another failure in moderate, pro-Western Turkey would not be a good start.

Yet so far the Turkish campaign has tended to reinforce what is emerging as a bad regional model: allowing democracy free rein, so long as the wrong candidate doesn't win. In the Turkish case, that is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular 48-year-old leader of Justice and Development, who once openly campaigned on an Islamist agenda but now says he has changed his politics. Erdogan was ruled ineligible because of his 1998 conviction for "inciting religious hatred" -- something he allegedly did by publicly reciting a 90-year-old nationalist poem calling minarets "our bayonets." The Turkish military, in its guise of protecting the secular Turkish state, forced Erdogan out of the office of mayor of Istanbul, just as it had previously forced the resignation in 1997 of Turkey's first prime minister from an avowedly Muslim party.

Such interventions have been embraced by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who, after announcing the creation of a military-led "national security council" on the Turkish model, banned his two leading civilian opponents from this month's parliamentary elections. The same logic guides Washington's announced policy on Palestinian reform: General democratic elections must be held, but Yasser Arafat can't win. The results in both cases have been dismal. Musharraf succeeded only in shifting votes from secular democrats to extremist Islamic candidates, while the Palestinian elections are on hold, thanks to Arafat's enduring popularity.

Erdogan and his party are doing their best to break this pattern. He has dropped explicit religious themes -- and even the word "Islam" -- from the party platform and has embraced the policies of the Turkish center: pro-European Union, pro-NATO, pro-globalization. The party says it will accept the International Monetary Fund's bitter medicine and signals that it will cooperate, even if reluctantly, with a U.S. war in Iraq. Ten percent of the Justice and Development candidates are women. Erdogan's wife, who wears a head scarf, has promised to avoid public functions if, after an election, his party succeeds in lifting the ban on his holding office.

Some in the Turkish secular elite have begun to think that this could work -- that Erdogan's party, which is polling at more than 30 percent, could form a centrist coalition and a new model: not of a democratic Islam, perhaps, but of a Muslim democratic party, one that could legitimately channel religious feeling within the political system, rather than trying to exclude it. Yet even this cautious course is provocative to many in the military. They are convinced that Justice and Development is a Trojan horse that inevitably will seek to subvert democracy.

Most likely they're wrong, and an Erdogan government would seek to do just what its campaign promises: broaden democracy. That's a horse the Bush administration should back.