DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Turkey will hold its first direct presidential election on Sunday. And this is seen as a way for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate power for himself and his AKP party. Erdogan seems to have weathered street protests and allegations of corruption and he's widely expected to win over two rivals. Now, the backdrop for the vote is the advance of the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq, as we've been reporting elsewhere on the program. I spoke yesterday with columnist Asli Aydintasbas from the Turkish newspaper Milliyet. I asked her if the battle raging next door is a big issue in this campaign.
ASLI AYDINTASBAS: It is a big issue, but not necessarily causing a dent in Erdogan's popularity. But something really strange is happening - Turks have generally discussed politics in terms of left and right, secular versus conservative - now we're actually talking about sects. Just this week, the prime minister accused the opposition leader saying I know you're an Alawite. Why aren't you saying you're an Alawite? I know that the leader of the Kurdish party is a Zaza. This is quite new in Turkish politics.
GREENE: How much are people concerned about that kind of evolution right now?
AYDINTASBAS: People are very concerned about it. Commentators even from the ruling party are sort of a little bit embarrassed about the fact that the Prime Minister uses the religious identity of the opposition leader or other leaders. Actually we have a very proud secular tradition, but I think the currents in the Middle East and the sort of Balkanization of identities is affecting us, too. We have a million and a half Syrian refugees, most of them begging in our streets. So we cannot be immune to what's happening in the rest of the Middle East.
GREENE: You know, it's interesting, over the last decade and while Erdogan has been in power, there's been this sense of a growing influence of Islam. And actually, one of Erdogan's allies, the deputy prime minister gave the speech about moral corruption recently and said that women should not laugh in public.
AYDINTASBAS: Not just his comment about laughter in public, but the government had a very persistent, systematic and public policy for example of segregated gender schools. In terms of the television shows, you know, they're encouraging people to cover up more. They're actually penalizing at times networks that show a bit too much cleavage. And this whole thing about lifestyle has become a bigger and bigger issue. I had supported AKP a decade ago because it seemed like they were running a battle for democracy against a very big secular establishment which always wasn't democratic. But now we are facing something else which is an oppressive conservative agenda.
GREENE: Well, Asli, let me just ask you, I mean, Turkey is a very important NATO ally. And especially through the Arab Spring, I mean, the country was really seen as a role model for other majority Muslim societies, you know, that a country can exist democratically, peacefully in this part of the world. Is this election going to change that in one way or another?
AYDINTASBAS: I think that story has been changing the last couple of years. Particularly with the riots last year, the crackdown was really harsh. And of course, you know, we had a string of people from journalists who, Generals who, went to jail over the past couple of years with charges that were often controversial. So the idea of this wonderful, poster-child, good and Muslim world conservative but Democrat is actually quite a bit tarnished right now.
GREENE: We were talking about those Sunni-Shiite schisms literally tearing up countries. Are you confident that Turkey has sort of the foundation in place for that not to happen there?
AYDINTASBAS: I'm not at all confident because the direction that we're heading is that people think more and more in terms of ethnic and sectarian lines. And it gives me great worry at a time when ISIS, the Islamic State, is at our borders. All of us have done everything in our universe has changed. Iraqi Kurds have become our closest allies and are only buffer between us and a world that seems very different from three years ago. Three years ago with Arab Spring, we all thought that Turkey would be the model, and we'd all be advancing towards a model of Muslim democracy. Now it's different shades of chaos.
GREENE: Asli Aydintasbas, she's a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper, and she joined us from Istanbul speaking about the upcoming presidential election in Turkey this Sunday. Alsi, thanks very much.
AYDINTASBAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.