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Are Turkey's Days of Freedom Already Numbered?

06/06/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2016

Daniel Pipes, the President of the Middle East Forum and a Fox News commentator, critiqued my Huffington Post blog post for saying Turkey was having their biggest election in their country's history.

In some ways, I think he might be on to something.

The optimist in me saw the excited party supporters, the enthusiastic marchers, and read the polls showing the ruling AKP would come up short in their bid to rewrite the constitution to make Recep Tayyip Erdogan a powerful, almost unchecked president. When Josh Zepps of HuffPost Live's World Brief asked for my prediction, I made it clear that that I hoped for an outcome that wouldn't involve a dictatorship.

But there's plenty of room for the pessimism that Pipes wrote about. And I saw that happen several times in Turkey.

I met an art teacher, fired from a government school, who had to sell his drawings to get by, simply for being a member of a group that exposed the corruption in the Erdogan regime. After he told me his story, I promised not to reveal his name, in case he would face additional harassment from the government.

"My friend, that ship has sailed," he said, shaking his head.

I'm choosing not to anyway, because he has family members who might be in the same boat if I used his name. But it's not the only case where someone who isn't a member of the ruling party.

Critics have already linked Erdogan's style to that of Vladimir Putin, among others.

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Erdogan, by the rules, is not supposed to be a candidate, but that doesn't explain why he's on nearly a quarter of all political posters in the 2015 Turkish elections, like this one in Istanbul.

"What do you think is going to happen after the election?" I asked a journalist, who also didn't toe the line for the AKP.

"I expect to be arrested at any minute," she said, a note of apprehension in her voice.

The culture of fear spread to the education environment. While visiting a class of students in an English-language school, I asked them about the upcoming election and what they thought might happen.

All looked around nervously and said "We're not supposed to talk about politics."

"Is this true?" I asked another teacher in another program.

"They are not banned from talking about politics, but it is not encouraged," he replied.
One student pointed at an Obama button pinned to my backpack. "Oh....our president really doesn't like your president," he stated, the only political comment to come out of the class.

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The ruling party places its posters everywhere, even on historic places like these walls in Kayseri. Imagine a Hillary Clinton poster on the Washington Monument or a Jeb Bush ad on the Lincoln Memorial.

"As he [Erdoğan] transforms a flawed democracy and NATO ally into a rogue state, ostrich-like Western governments sentimentally pretend it's still the 1990s, with Ankara a reliable ally, and abet his growing despotism. Therefore, I conclude, how many seats the AKP wins hardly matters. Erdoğan will barrel, bulldoze, and steamroll his way ahead, ignoring traditional and legal niceties with or without changes to the constitution. Sure, having fully legitimate powers would add a pretty bauble to his résumé, but he's already tyrant and Turkey's course is set."

For the sake of the Turkish people, even the AKP supporters who think they have the country's best interests at heart and don't see the grand plan, I really hope Pipes is wrong, that the ruling party won't steal the election, that the opposition party can cobble together some sort of plan that offers a real alternative for the citizens of Turkey.

But Pipes could be right. And that ship may have already sailed.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.