ISTANBUL – There’s little doubt Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will win this weekend's parliamentary elections. But observers say his margin of victory could go a long way to determining what that means for democracy in Turkey going forward, along with this longtime pro-Western nation's relations with the U.S. and other key allies.
Erdogan's Welfare Party has a lot going for it right now: The robust Turkish economy is among the world's fastest-growing, Turkey is becoming a more important player in one of the world's key geostrategic regions, and the country has experienced one of its longest stretches of political stability since its founding by Kemal Ataturk.
But critics worry a big victory for Erdogan -- pro-Islamic and not as Western-oriented as Turkey’s onetime secular establishment would like -- would accelerate what they see as a steady curbing of personal freedoms across Turkey, along with a foreign policy that brings it troublingly closer to regimes like Iran, and Muslim fundamentalists.
"Turkey is one of the few countries in the world where so many journalists are in jail," said Binnaz Toprak, an author and chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. "One thousand journalists are facing trial. In that sense, we beat even China."
Journalists were among literally thousands of Turks -- many of them influential and notable figures in the secular establishment -- swept up and charged as part of the Erdogan government's investigation into alleged coup plots in recent years. Some Turks feel the plots were a legitimate threat, while others hotly deny their existence, seeing instead a government plot to erase dissent.
Many argue the result has had a chilling effect on personal freedom.
"It's a totally new way of censorship. You don't have some burly commissar telling you what to write. But everything is shaped so that auto-censorship is almost a daily ingredient of journalism," charged Asli Aydintasbas of the Milliyet newspaper.
Erdogan's opponents fear that he'll win a three-quarters majority in the elections, which will give his party virtually unchecked power to change the Turkish constitution as it sees fit -- at the expense of even greater freedoms. Secularists in particular fear Erdogan's Islamic sympathies will become more pronounced, and lead to more visible Islamization.
Toprak says in more conservative parts of Turkey, there is more pressure than to be more outwardly Islamic. And it’s about much more than women being pressured to wear headscarves -- for decades a hot-button religious and social issue in Turkey.
"We have been told by people, men for instance, that they get beaten up if they wear colorful T-shirts, or if they have long hair or wear earrings," she said.
The government dismisses the accusations as fear-mongering.
"In this country, we have not interfered in anyone's way of living. People are free to wear their headscarf or their miniskirt," said Welfare Party Minister Egemen Bagis. "If someone wants to drink a cup of coffee, it's their choice. If they want to drink wine, that's also their choice."
Turkey's importance has been particularly important to the West. A NATO member, it has been a vitally important ally to the United States, on a variety of cultural as well as military and political levels. But a series of events under Erdogan's watch has some wondering about Turkey's ongoing support for the Western alliance.
Just last year, for example, Turkey voted against the latest round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, with whom Erdogan has tightened ties. And Turkey's once rock-solid relations with Israel have nearly collapsed.
Asked if the U.S. could continue to count on Turkey going forward, Egemen offered this:
"As long as we take the decisions together, as long as there is consultation, as long as we act as allies, partners, real friends -- of course the United States can depend on Turkey.
"But if the United States decides to call all the shots, make all the decisions, then expect allies to be obedient, that would not be the right approach."
Turkey's tremendous economy is no doubt an important pillar of strength for the Erdogan government. GDP in Turkey has nearly quadrupled under the Welfare Party, and business from both Western tourism and regional trade with Middle Eastern and the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union are booming.
"I don't think it's so much about an Islamic drift, but a pragmatic economic drift," local TV anchor Allen Collinsworth said about Turkey's relations with the West.
Others see public sentiment among Turks wanting to go their own way on the world stage.
"There is an underlying long-run sentiment of mistrust in the Turkish public psyche toward American interests in the region,” said Professor Ali Carkoglu of Koc University, who says the U.S. sometimes misjudges or misreads Turkey’s domestic political climate.