When she took over as Turkish prime minister in 1993, Tansu Ciller was dismissed as a "pretty blonde" who belonged in the kitchen. But she has shown herself to be a wily, tenacious politician, surprising and frustrating her critics in the "good ol' boys club" that is Turkey's political establishment.

She has emerged from a 45-day government crisis earlier this month still at the helm, bruised but smiling the well-known Ciller smile, which some call radiantly disarming, others steely. Over the course of the crisis, she broke with her social democrat government coalition partner, resigned, was reappointed, failed to go it alone with a minority government, then reformed the collapsed coalition and agreed to early elections next month.

But more than surviving fierce opposition from rival parties and from within her own center-right True Path Party, Ciller, one of only a handful of women in the 450-seat Parliament, has shown a resourcefulness and ability to exploit opportunities, as one veteran Turkish journalist put it, that have helped her advance her stated agenda of moving Turkey forward and westward.

She can boast, for example, of recent democratization measures -- urged by Western nations and human rights groups -- including changes to the constitution adopted under military rule. Her government also has softened one of the laws used to stifle freedom of expression here, which has led to the release of more than 80 people from prison. She also has brought Turkey to the verge of signing a customs union accord with the European Union, which will anchor the country more firmly to the West.

The Ciller government, however, continues to grapple with a violent insurgency by Kurdish separatists, a political challenge by Islamic fundamentalist groups and an economic crisis. With parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 24, many say the country's first female prime minister is facing her biggest test yet.

Ciller's insistence on a solely military solution to the Kurdish problem, her decision to seek the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of Kurdish politicians -- which led to the prosecution and jailing of some of them -- and her apparent closeness to military and security officials have been heavily criticized abroad and at home as barriers to bringing broader democracy to Turkey.

Sule Bucak, a member of the social democratic Republican People's Party and a possible candidate in the coming elections, says that while she is proud to have a woman as prime minister and believes that many other women in Turkey are, too, she criticizes Ciller for stopping short on democratization. "We want more rights, more freedoms for all the people, including for the Kurds," Bucak said in a recent interview.

Ciller told foreign journalists this month that she aimed to carry out a promise to devolve power from the central government to local authorities, a measure intended to widen democracy and that could lead to expanded rights for Kurds. At the same time, she has moved to add many former security officials to the True Path candidate lists in a bid to bolster support among her party's nationalist constituency.

Potentially more beneficial to Ciller's election chances would be signing the EU customs accord. The European Parliament is scheduled to vote to finalize the deal Dec. 14.

The customs union issue has been at the center of the debate between those who favor preserving Turkey's secular form of government and those who back Islamic fundamentalist groups that are gathering increasing political strength. Ciller has argued to both domestic and foreign audiences that refusal by Europe to accept the accord would represent to many Turks the West's turning its back on Turkey. She has warned that the rebuff may play into the hands of the pro-Islamist, anti-Western Welfare Party, which controls city halls in Ankara, Istanbul and many other cities and is poised to become a bigger player in Turkish politics, according to polls. Welfare holds 38 seats in Parliament.

The United States, which regards Turkey as a strategically important ally and a key member of NATO, supports the customs union accord and has also thrown its weight behind Ankara's efforts to build a pipeline to transport Caspian Sea oil.

Ciller's image as a modern, secular, liberal alternative to the Welfare Party -- she is sending the message to the electorate that "It's me or sharia," referring to Islamic law -- is one of her biggest strengths going into the election, according to Turkish journalist Rasit Gurdilek.

The lack of any strong challenger within the mainstream center parties, as amply displayed during the recent crisis, is another factor in Ciller's favor, Gurdilek says.

Where the prime minister looks perhaps most vulnerable, according to Western and Turkish analysts, is on matters related to her personal wealth as well of allegations of corruption that touch her family. She is expected to come under increasing criticism for keeping a substantial portion of her assets in the United States, according to Gurdilek. Turkey's recent economic hardships -- retail inflation was 134 percent in 1994 and stands at 80 percent now -- could also hurt the prime minister, he said, despite Ciller's recent moves to increase farm subsidies, grant pension increases and give larger-than-expected raises to public workers. CAPTION: Turkish Premier Tansu Ciller has proven to be a political survivor and has managed to advance her agenda forward -- and Turkey westward.