ISTANBUL - At first, Istanbul seems to be a sea of red and white flags hanging over the streets. On closer look, the nuances appear.

The veteran Republican People's Party, with their red flag and white sun rays, is also represented. So is the extreme right-wing National Action Party (MHP) and the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamic party that is frightening everyone symbolized by an electric light bulb. There are Islamic parties with two and three crescents.

Portraits of the candidates plaster the walls, and people are invited to rallies featuring famous performers.

The elections, taking place four months earlier than planned, are fraught with tension over the character of the country, between Erdogan's party, which is close to Islam, and the secular opposition.

The flags and posters of the parties running in Sunday's general election are less present in the center of the city. On the bustling Istiklal pedestrian mall, I asked a young woman leading a rock group who her friends would vote for. She looked at me in surprise and shrugged her shoulders. A tattooed friend responded with a dismissive gesture that reminded me of the reaction of Israeli young people to politics.

Above flutter the flags of the 14 parties taking part in the election. Below, in the street, life goes on. A young woman was wearing a head scarf; her boyfriend was caressing her openly. There is no automatic connection between symbols and reality.

We crossed the Bosphorus to Asia and headed for the home of Mehmet Eyuboglu. His mother was the doyenne of Turkish modern art, Eren Eyuboglu. He lives on the street that bears his father's name, a no less important painter. A member of the secular elite, Mehmet said Turkey was heading by leaps and bounds toward becoming a second Iran. This is the first time Turks care about the elections, he says, noting the huge rallies against Islamization.

His mother was a Jew from Romania whose name was Ernestina Liebovich, a fact that never impeded her career. He mourns the deviousness with which graduates of Islamic colleges infiltrated public service. When the government moves to a secular coalition, it will take a decade to get rid of all the Islamists, he says.

The family should have already been summering in Bodrum, he adds. But they are suffering the heat to stay and vote, to exert their influence.