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Supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave national, AK Party and Huda Par flags during a campaign event on May 9, in Istanbul.BK/Getty Images

It is a cliché to say that the next election will be the most important one ever. But this feels especially true for Turkey, which heads to the polls on Sunday with a rare – and maybe final – opportunity to end two decades of iron-fisted rule by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For once, there is a candidate who has unified the opposition parties, and amidst a disastrous response to devastating earthquakes and a fragile Turkish economy, there is plenty of reason to believe Turks are fed up.

But Mr. Erdogan will not let go easily – if at all. As Nobel-laurate author Orhan Pamuk warned in 2015, the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) “wants to control everything”; he has his grip on all levers of government, media and business, and he has used them to punish anyone who tries to stand in his way. His crackdowns on the Hizmet movement (or Gulen movement), which emphasizes education, interfaith dialogue and social welfare, and has a global network of schools and charities, show how far he is willing to go – as does the US$500,000 bounty his government placed on me, one of his most vocal opponents.

Hizmet, of which I am a proud participant, has become a useful bogeyman for Mr. Erdogan. He rallies his supporters and silences his critics by painting it as a threat to national security with little evidence. But the movement – which was started by Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-exile in the United States since 1999 – once supported him. In the early 2000s, the AKP sought Hizmet’s support, alongside liberals, centrists and Kurds who wanted to dismantle the country’s repressive military-backed bureaucracy and position the country for membership in the European Union. And thanks in part to its tactical alliance with Hizmet, the AKP won three consecutive majority governments beginning in 2002.

But a split developed as the AKP shed its reformist identity for authoritarianism. The breaking point came in 2013, when the movement criticized the government for its crackdowns of a sit-in protest over Istanbul’s Gezi Park development, its political profiling of ordinary citizens and its repression of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. That fall, Mr. Erdogan banned hundreds of Hizmet-affiliated college prep tutoring centres, and later that year, a judicial probe led to dozens of AKP associates, including the sons of three ministers, a mayor and a number of bureaucrats, receiving public corruption charges, amid allegations that the government illicitly traded gold with Iran in exchange for oil, in defiance of international sanctions.

Mr. Erdogan claimed this was a politically driven investigation by Gulen sympathizers in the judiciary and accused the movement of creating a “parallel structure” within Turkish institutions. Three years later, after what appeared to be an attempt to topple the government by a small fraction of the military, Mr. Erdogan accused Mr. Gulen of masterminding the effort and designated his movement a terrorist group. The European Union, Britain and the United States have all said that Turkey has not provided sufficient evidence to connect the coup attempt to Mr. Gulen – who denounced it that very night – nor to justify a terrorist designation. Nevertheless, the accusations were a pretext to purge Mr. Erdogan’s perceived enemies from the government, military, judiciary and academia. He shut down media outlets associated with Hizmet and other critics, and his government has directed the arrests of hundreds of thousands of Hizmet participants without charges.

He sees the movement as a threat to his rule, and that’s enough for him to want it eradicated. The President also views Hizmet as a rival to his own Islamist agenda. The AKP has its roots in political Islam, but it has become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt over the years. Hizmet, on the other hand, promotes a more inclusive and moderate version of Islam that emphasizes civic engagement, liberal-leaning values, democratic debate and social justice, and its participants have criticized Mr. Erdogan’s policies and actions.

Opinion: Will Turkey’s elections end the Erdogan era? Maybe, but be careful what you wish for

Attacks on the Hizmet movement are part of a broader assault on human rights in Turkey. Freedom House has deemed Turkey “not free”; Amnesty International has accused the government of deploying overly broad counterterrorism laws to target civil society groups; the World Justice Project ranks Turkey 117th out of 139 countries in its Rule of Law Index. Earlier this year, an AKP lawmaker even felt emboldened enough to vow to “destroy” dissidents abroad while visiting Germany; the German Foreign Ministry called his remarks “hate speech.”

Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown on Hizmet is not only a threat to the organization, but to Turkey’s democracy. The Turkish people deserve the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which this regime has denied them.

A fresh start with a new government would help. When leaders use fear-mongering and smear campaigns to stifle opposition, they undermine the principles of free and fair elections. It is therefore the responsibility of the Turkish people, and the international community, to hold Mr. Erdogan accountable for his actions ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, and for the international community to defend the integrity of the electoral process.

Otherwise, the future of Turkey will be uncertain, and the dreams of its people will remain unfulfilled.

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