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Ak Saray, Turkey’s controversial new presidential palace on the outskirts of Ankara is said to have nearly 1,000 rooms.


One weekday morning last December, Mehmet Emin Altunses woke up in a predicament familiar to most 16-year-old boys: He had overslept. Throwing on his clothes, he skipped breakfast and raced to his nearby high school, where he studies machinery design. He never imagined that within hours he would be alone in a jail cell.

Around midday, Mr. Altunses was summoned to the principal's office. He recognized the police officers waiting there from a day earlier, when he had taken part in a small demonstration held in a park in Konya, his hometown in central Anatolia.

At the protest, Mr. Altunses read out a statement he wrote that referred to corruption allegations surrounding Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mr. Erdogan's new $600-million (U.S.) official abode. He called Mr. Erdogan "a thief in an illegal palace."

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In today's Turkey, such statements have consequences. Despite his age, Mr. Altunses was arrested, held in solitary confinement for two nights, and charged with insulting the President, a crime which carries a possible prison sentence.

An only child who loves soccer, Mr. Altunses fidgets as he describes his ordeal, smiling only rarely. "I want a free Turkey," says Mr. Altunses, whose case is still before the courts. "Whatever we think in our heads, we should be able to say out loud. This is the kind of country I want."

On Sunday, Turkish voters head to the polls in a seminal election. They're voting for a new parliament, but in a deeper sense, it is a referendum on the question raised by Mr. Altunses: What kind of country do they want to have? In particular, it is an election about the mounting authoritarianism of Mr. Erdogan, who is seeking an unprecedented mandate to increase his own power.

Mr. Erdogan wants voters to give his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority large enough to rewrite Turkey's constitution and create a newly powerful presidency. Such changes are necessary, Mr. Erdogan argues, to reform an outdated system and make the government more efficient.

Critics say Mr. Erdogan's only goal is to cement his own grip on the country. After 13 years in power, he is no longer the moderate reformer he once was – a politician who embodied a brand of Islam comfortable within liberal democracy. Instead, they say, he sees himself as a modern-day sultan who intends to supersede Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country's secular founder.

"This is not an ordinary election; this is an election for regime change," said Bulent Kenes, the editor-in-chief of Today's Zaman, who has been critical of Mr. Erdogan. "It's a referendum on changing from a democracy to a sultanate."

As cases like that of Mr. Altunses and many others demonstrate, Mr. Erdogan is increasingly intolerant of criticism. In 2013, he violently suppressed a series of anti-government protests that began in Istanbul's Gezi Park. Journalists reporting news that displeases him can expect public threats, court cases and possible imprisonment.

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Despite his domineering style, Mr. Erdogan remains popular with nearly half the electorate, who credit him with jump-starting economic growth, improving infrastructure and restoring Islam to a place of prominence in what had been a rigidly secular country.

But after more than a decade of electoral triumphs, Mr. Erdogan may experience a setback on Sunday. Pollsters all agree that his party will get the highest number of votes in the election. But it's unclear whether it will receive enough seats in parliament – a two-thirds majority – to initiate the constitutional change that Mr. Erdogan craves. If support for Mr. Erdogan's party flags, it might even be forced to enter into a coalition government.

The spoiler for Mr. Erdogan's plans could not be more unlikely: the upstart People's Democracy Party, or HDP, a left-wing party strongly rooted in Kurdish nationalism. To enter parliament, the party must first receive at least 10 per cent of the vote nationwide. If it does, it will deprive Mr. Erdogan of the seats he needs to remake the constitution.

To cross the threshold, the HDP will need not just the votes of Turkish Kurds, but also Turks who are "left-leaning, liberal, or just resentful" of Mr. Erdogan's party, Soli Ozel, a political analyst and columnist, wrote earlier this week. "If the gamble pays off … the course of Turkish politics might change dramatically."

The 16-year-old foe

In many ways, Mr. Altunses is a regular teenager. He is devoted to his favourite soccer team, Istanbul's Galatasaray. He's not the best student in his classes, but not the worst either. He has thick brown hair, sideburns and a manner that alternates between reserved and incredulous.

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Two years ago, when protests broke out in Istanbul and spread to other cities, Mr. Altunses took part in sister demonstrations in Konya. He became active in an association of high-school students that supports secularism.

That same group in December organized the small protest, where Mr. Altunses read his fateful statement. After it was over, he returned home – his mother is a housewife and his father works on a farm – and fell asleep.

The next day he was arrested. His detention flummoxed some of the guards at the local jail, who weren't sure how to handle a 16-year-old political prisoner, he recalled. They emptied out a cell that normally housed a dozen inmates and put him in it by himself. It measured 12 steps by seven steps, he said, and had only a tiny radiator against the chilly December air.

His worst moments came when he thought of his parents and what they were doing. He also thought of some of the protesters killed during the Gezi Park demonstrations. "They lost their lives and I'm only in prison, so I'm okay," he remembered, sounding older than his age.

The local prosecutor's office in Konya declined to respond to a request for comment on Mr. Altunses's case. Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr. Erdogan's lieutenant, has spoken out in support of the court's decision to arrest the boy. "Everyone must respect the office of president whoever he is," Mr. Davutoglu said.

While Mr. Altunses's age makes his situation unusual, his legal jeopardy is not. Ever since Mr. Erdogan was elected president in August, 2014 – he was formerly the prime minister – more than 100 people have been charged with insulting the head of state.

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They include: a one-time Miss Turkey, who posted a poem deemed derogatory to Mr. Erdogan to her Instagram account; a former television journalist who tweeted about corruption allegations connected to Mr. Erdogan; and a 24-year-old university student who allegedly insulted Mr. Erdogan during a drunken quarrel with police. The charge carries a possible sentence of four years or more in prison. In some cases, the sentence has been suspended or reduced to a fine, but in others the accused have been imprisoned.

The consequences of speaking out against Mr. Erdogan can depend on the local context. Konya, a conservative city near the Taurus Mountains, is a stronghold of Mr. Erdogan's AKP and the hometown of Mr. Davutoglu, who is running for re-election. Ahead of the elections, billboards and advertisements hailing the AKP's track record dominate the city's streets. A 42-storey business tower downtown is draped with giant banners bearing party slogans and Mr. Davutoglu's face.

Omer Faruk Kaman, a vice-chairman of a local AKP branch in Konya, claimed that Mr. Altunses was probably manipulated into his statement by an opposition party. "In the middle of the city, he yells insults against the President. How could we possibly explain this? Why did he do that? Provocation," Mr. Kaman said. "People in Konya are really sensitive about these things. Something had to be done."

'A stick in his hand'

Criticism by ordinary citizens is one thing, but journalists really appear to get under Mr. Erdogan's skin. Only those newspapers that are resolutely in favour of the government have escaped his wrath. In the lead-up to the election, his tone has grown even more strident.

"The President perceives all criticism, whether sharp or mild, as an insult," said Mr. Kenes of Today's Zaman. "There's a kind of craziness in Turkey now." Mr. Kenes agreed to an interview with a caveat that was only half in jest: He'd be happy to meet if he's not in police custody.

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His paper is part of the Zaman media group, which is associated with Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader living in the United States and an ally-turned-enemy of Mr. Erdogan.

The head of its affiliated television channel is already in jail, and rumours of further arrests swirled around Istanbul this week.

On Sunday, Mr. Erdogan lashed out at a different media target. He warned that the editor of Cumhuriyet newspaper would pay "a heavy price" for a story, complete with video footage, alleging Turkey's intelligence service delivered weapons to Syrian rebels (the government denies any arms shipments). Mr. Erdogan himself launched a criminal complaint seeking life imprisonment for the editor, Can Dundar, saying the report constituted slander and espionage.

Earlier this week, Mr. Erdogan launched a broadside against The New York Times, which had published an editorial critical of his conduct. The paper's aim is "to weaken Turkey, to divide it and to disintegrate it and then to swallow it," Mr. Erdogan said, according to a report in the Hurriyet Daily News.

Such media outlets serve a "superior mind," he added – a vague term that Mr. Erdogan has used repeatedly, sometimes to refer to the U.S. or Israel or internal enemies.

Baris Ince, editor of Birgun, a left-wing newspaper, is yet another journalist facing intimidation. He was charged with insulting the President for an article he wrote describing how some were calling Mr. Erdogan a thief. "The terms I used do not include insults, because there were corruption charges against him – and a great many people thought that he was a thief," said Mr. Ince in a conversation right after his latest court date. Mr. Erdogan "uses the entire system as a stick in his hand."

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Mr. Ince isn't sure whether the environment for journalists will improve after the election. He believes that the upstart HDP will cross the 10-per-cent threshold, thereby reducing the ruling party's presence in parliament. While Mr. Erdogan's party "will be weakened, this may also make them more nervous."

Shifting careers

Back in Konya, Mr. Altunses is sitting in a café across from the tomb where 13th-century poet and mystic Rumi is buried. School is out in mid-June and he's pondering his summer plans, likely a job and hanging out with friends.

His trial is ongoing and his next appearance before the presiding judge is in September. His lawyers expect a verdict either then or in several months, he said. They believe he will probably be found guilty but that any prison sentence will be suspended.

Asked if he has anything to say to Mr. Erdogan now, Mr. Altunses shakes his head. But he's not abandoning his convictions. "Until the time this country has a better regime, I intend to be involved in politics," he says. The experience did influence his choice of profession, however. He intends to become a lawyer.

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