Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan addresses the media at his ruling AKP headquarters in Ankara
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan addresses the media at his ruling AKP headquarters in Ankara

As Turkey is hitting the headlines for opening up to the large influx of Syrian refugees, fleeing the Assad regime, the country is preparing for parliamentary elections on Sunday June 12, and the Prime Minister's Party the AKP, while being tipped as the hot favourite, still divides opinion. Many see Turkey's attempt to play a more diplomatic role in the Middle-East's new development as a tactic to divert attention from the party's sometimes controversial policies.

Recent polls show support for the party ranging from 42 per cent to 50 per cent, suggesting a possible landslide victory.

However, critics fear such a victory would help Erdogan tighten his grip on power and establish a de facto one-party system. One of the main concerns is that the government could undermine freedom and democratic rights and raise pressure on the secular opposition and Kurdish groups.

However, hitting back at the detractors, Volkan Bozkir, a former career diplomat who has led efforts for Turkey's campaign for EU membership and is now an AKP deputy candidate for parliament, insisted that "Fears about the future of democracy in Turkey are unfounded,"

"AKP has already been in government as a single party for the last eight and a half years. Turkey has already come closer to an advanced democracy, founded on liberal ideas, freedom and free enterprise, with a larger role for civil society, with basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by the system," he added.

In the last decade, Turkey has come to play an increasing role in International and regional politics. As the country has become one of the world's fastest growing economies, larger powers were forced to give the country's political voice more credit. Recently the Turkish Prime Minister did not hesitate to stand up to Nato, and refused to participate in the air strikes in Libya.

Moreover, Turkey also plays a diplomatic role in the Libyan conflict as it wants to push for a political solution to end the conflict and has also previously sent convoys to Damascus in an attempt to pressure the Assad regime into implementing more reforms.

However, while Turkey is gaining more international recognition as a growing regional power, critics warn that its record on democratic rights and freedoms has deteriorated in recent years.

One of the main concerns focuses on the government's alleged repression of freedom of speech. According to a report published in January, the think tank Freedom House views Turkey as only being a "partly free" country and criticizes the government for its restrictions on press freedom. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Turkey is currently holding at least 57 journalists in prison and the government is restricting access to the Internet, conducting deliberate and widespread wire-tapping practices and is growing increasingly intolerant of critics.

AKP first came to power in 2002, with 34.3 per cent of the vote. In 2007, it won 46.6 per cent, but during these two terms, it could not get an absolute majority. If the party now wins 367 seats or more, it will have an absolute majority in parliament and will be able to change, as it said it would, the constitution, without the need for a referendum.

Another main criticism concerns fears that the AKP has pushed for a deepening polarization between the party and its secular judiciary as the government's influence on the judicial apparatus has grown in the last years, leaving the country without a system of checks and balances.

Over the years, the AKP has also been accused of planning to force the Islamisation of the country through authoritarian rule.

However, Metin Heper, a professor at Bilkent University, disagrees. "The AKP has come to power through elections. So far it hasn't made a single attempt to change civil law. The AKP is not trying to make Turkey an Islamic state," he said.

"If it went down the Islamist route, it would lose most of its electorate. Even though the military today lost its political influence, it cannot stay indifferent to a move by any party that will try to turn Turkey into a theocracy. And if we are talking about EU membership, you will find yourself out of the EU, the moment you leave aside democracy."

Recently commenting on the government's intention to draft a new constitution, former diplomat Bozkir, recently insisted that "The most important step after the elections will be the new civilian constitution. This will mark the end of military tutelage and the psychology of military coups since 1960,"

"There will be strong foundations in the new constitution to prevent such interventions again. Turkey will have the constitution it deserves. A libertarian constitution, which stresses the role of a civil society and guarantees basic rights and freedoms", he added.

However critics maintain that the adoption of a new constitution will only happen if the government wins an absolute majority on Sunday's election, which would them render its legitimacy questionable. In any case it would be interesting to know who is going to draft this constitution. Is it going to be the ruling Justice and Development Party that is going to draft it on its own? Will they seek input from civil society and of the political opposition?

While Erdogan appears to be convinced of the need for a libertarian constitution, he clearly is less keen on libertarian politics. While his party started off with implementing new reforms increasing women's rights, like for instance rape inside marriage which is now a criminal offence, in the last few years however the government appears to have backtracked.

With Mr Erdogan's self-proclaimed hate for day-centres for children, since women should look after their children, his latest decision to scrap the ministry for women, along with seven other cabinet jobs to replace it with a ministry for "family and social policies...as we are a conservative democratic party, we need to strengthen the family structure", will not calm Turkish women activist's fears of the government's puritanisation.

Additionally, while the Turkish economy is good and inflation is low, unemployment still remains an important issue as it hovers at around 11 per cent, and the country also has a large budget and trade deficit.

Finally there is the question of representation of the Kurdish minority on the political scene. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party is the official party representing the Kurdish perspective in the elections, but there's concern that they won't reach the required 10 per cent required to have a representation in the parliament and observers fear it could contribute to a marginalisation of the Kurds' voice in government and to the radicalization or marginalization of the Kurds in Turkish society.

So while the AKP government still has the support of the majority, its success can mostly be explained by its ability to create a stable economic and political into the country. However, in view of the new development in the region, the government future moves will clearly be scrutinized and Erdogan should by now be well aware that by trying to curb freedom of speech, he runs the risk of provoking popular discontent. While Turkey's move to keep its borders open to Syrian refuges and to build new camps can only be applauded, it will hopefully gain lessons from the situation and avoid going on a witch hunt against dissidents' voices.