ANKARA -- Although the next scheduled general election in Turkey is more than a year away, election fever is rising in the Anatolian countryside as the nation moves toward a referendum Sept. 6 that will determine whether dozens of former political leaders, banned from political activity after an Army coup in 1980, will be permitted to return to political life.
"I am in search of a free and democratic Turkey," said Suleyman Demirel, six-time prime minister and one of those banned from politics after the coup. Stumping the nation's interior one day last week, Demirel said, "Daggers have been stabbed into the back of my country."
Demirel was referring to the constitutional ban on political activity imposed on many politicians after the coup and endorsed by 92 percent of the voters in an Army-engineered referendum in 1982.
Under its terms, Demirel and another former prime minister, the left-wing Bulent Ecevit, Demirel's leading rival for power in the 1970s, were among those barred from holding office until 1992 because the Army considered them an obstruction to the country's political progress.
Now, Turkish voters are getting a chance to rule on the restoration of their rights, despite the widespread belief that they led Turkey to the brink of anarchy and economic ruin in the late 1970s.
The decision to reconsider was made by Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, a one-time Demirel protege, who took over leadership in 1983 after winning the first national election allowed by the generals after the coup.
Ozal, who was criticized for accepting the bans, decided that if Turkey was to have an unchallenged democratic system, the issue would have to be put to the people in the same form as it had been before -- as a constitutional referendum.
Analysts here regard the decision as a gamble that could cost Ozal his job and the conservative Motherland Party he founded its influence. For while the Turkish left is divided and weak, the conservative Demirel and his True Path party remain popular, especially in the Turkish countryside that was always Demirel's political base.
"If the referendum approves the lifting of the political bans, Demirel is going to be a serious rival to Ozal who pretty much inherited much of Demirel's support during the time Demirel was not allowed to run for office," said one senior Western diplomat here. "No one knows just how Ozal would fare if Demirel was running against him."
Ozal has presided over a remarkable renaissance of the Turkish economy. But he obviously is concerned.
When the referendum was announced earlier this summer, Ozal insisted that he would remain above the debate and would not campaign either for or against ending the bans.
But as Demirel has moved around the country drawing crowds of up to 40,000 in small Anatolian towns such as Aksaray and Nevsevir where he was last week, Ozal has begun to hint that the voters should not let the old cast of politicians back on stage.
While Turkey's freewheeling newspapers have endorsed lifting the bans, Ozal has maintained control of the nation's state-controlled radio and television network, which last week turned down appeals by Demirel that it broadcast his rallies and give him equal time with Ozal.
As the referendum campaign moves into its final month, the outcome appears to be a toss-up.
Equally uncertain is whether Ozal will call an election for this fall, after the referendum. Ozal hinted last spring that he might do that, although key advisers say they are betting he will not.
With a solid majority of 252 seats in Turkey's 400-seat Assembly, Ozal does not have to worry about any immediate political threat even if Demirel's political rights are restored because general elections are not due until late 1988.
But speculation is rampant that Ozal will decide that the best time for elections is this fall. He may call them, analysts argue, because he could view an end to the bans as a vote of no confidence, or a maintenance of the bans as a sign of political momentum that could make elections a safer bet now than next year, when the economy is expected to slow down.
If Demirel and the rest of the old guard are still excluded, Ozal's majority will be secure. But if Demirel is back, Ozal's political future will be in some doubt.