RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sunday is election day in Turkey, and it could say a lot about what path that country is on. Turkey is an important NATO ally with the U.S., but relations between the two countries have been strained over issues including how to handle the Syrian war, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has overseen the arrests of tens of thousands of his own people after a failed coup attempt two years ago. Now he is running for re-election in a vote that would also add powers to his presidency. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in Istanbul and joins us now. Hey, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: How is Erdogan positioned going into this vote?
KENYON: Well, it's a bit hard to judge. The polls aren't perfectly reliable, but he appears to be leading. If the polls have it right, he should win. Whether he needs to have a runoff is in question. But if he does win, as you mentioned, he's going to be even stronger than he has been. He'll be getting new executive powers. Erdogan is saying, look, this is a new era for Turkey. His opponents are saying, no, it's one more step toward one-man rule, and we have to stop it.
MARTIN: Who are the opponents?
KENYON: Well, there's a couple of really strong challengers this time, surprisingly so. Muharrem Ince is the name of the secular candidate from the CHP, the main secular party. He's younger, more outspoken than we've seen before from this party, and he seems to be connecting with voters. There is a woman in the race, nationalist Meral Aksener. She quit her party when they lined up with Erdogan, started their own party, and she seems to be running a strong third. They are scrambling a bit because these elections were moved up by more than a year. They weren't supposed to be held till next fall. So whether they've got the momentum now and can catch up to Erdogan is what we're waiting to see.
MARTIN: So as we noted, Erdogan's critics in the West say that he has grown more authoritarian over time, that Turkey's very democracy is under threat. You mentioned that his critics in this election have tried to come out and criticize the accrual of powers that Erdogan has achieved for himself. But does it go beyond that? I mean, what do regular Turks think? Do they fear his accrual of power?
KENYON: Well, all sides seem to see him gaining more power. The reactions depend on who you talk to. His supporters say, he's got to be tough, we want him to have lots of power. There's enemies at home and abroad. They must be confronted. A lot of other people, however, are raising questions like, should we have a leader in power for 20 years, which is what will happen if Erdogan serves another five-year term here? Is that compatible with a real democracy in the 21st century? These critics say the parliament doesn't have the powers it used to in terms of checks and balances, the judiciary is less independent - too much power for one hand. Now, this is a whole system that's never been tried before, however. And so we could also have a situation where Erdogan might win re-election and yet face a legislature, a parliament run by the opposition. That could significantly hamper his ability to enact his own agenda, and that would be new for Turkey.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon for us, talking about the election in Turkey happening this Sunday. Thanks so much, Peter.
KENYON: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.