The Turkish Elections — What’s at Stake . . . and What Isn’t


Turkey — We landed in Istanbul May 16 for work and to visit family and friends.  We traveled to Ankara, then went southeast to villages near Kayseri, then back to Istanbul for an international anthropology conference before visiting the port city of Izmir for a few days, traveling inland again to the textile center of Denizli and eventually returning to Istanbul and departing June 5.  We talked to as many people as possible, from taxi drivers to millionaires, businessmen, leftist activists, and academics, to ascertain the political climate of this country at the crossroads of civilizations.  This is our account of those conversations.  Note: To protect the privacy of our interviewees, all names have been removed, except for Jenny White who gave permission to use hers.

The Shell Game

May 19 is a bayram, or holiday, celebrating the launching of Ataturk’s campaign against the sultan in his 1919 march from Samsun on the Black Sea south to Ankara.  During the bayram, pictures of the father of the country in noble stern poses hang from buildings everywhere, draping over 10 or 20 balconies at a time, often with flags of the same immense proportions on either side.  Town squares and city traffic circles, city buildings, jandarma headquarters and more are adorned with images of Ataturk and the Turkish star and crescent moon, both symbols of the secularist orientation of Kemal Ataturk.  Hence secularists refer to themselves as Kemalists.

So how is it that this country that so enthusiastically celebrates a man who separated religion from government has come under the control of Islamists under the name of AKP?  How come more women than ever are walking city streets wearing special headscarves that hide all of their hair, “kapali” or “covered” women as the Turks call them?  How, when Ataturk, the father of this country, banned the veil in 1920, can it be staging a step-by-step comeback?  Is this discussion about the politicization of women’s fashion accessories, or does it entail any economic or political ramifications for the average Turkish citizen?

Some people say that parties on the center and left have splintered too many times over the years.  There are 21 parties active in the next election.  Meanwhile the Islamists have successfully stayed together in one party, under a succession of names.  In the 1990s it was known as Refa, now AK Party or AKP, each time morphing into a more sophisticated political machine with a more subtle message.  Its current manifestation claims to be pro-secular, or laik — pronounced lah-eek — but it has given itself away more than once.  Recently, Turkey made the U.S. news when the secularists in parliament denied the body a quorum by boycotting two sessions that would have installed the AKP’s Abdullah Gül as president.  When the courts upheld the move, Gül withdrew.  In the U.S. press, Gül has been described as a “moderate Islamist” and in Turkey one person described AKP as “liberal Islamists,” but to most secularists, just having Islamists organized as a political force refutes any usual definition of left or right, conservative or radical, and adds another dimension to politics: They are all conservative compared to secularists.  Shifting titles and labels, complex political maneuvers, and an economy increasingly polarized between haves and have-nots make Turkish politics a political shell game everyone can debate while sipping coffee at a sidewalk café, but how will this magician’s trick play out and who will win the gamble?

People who say they’ve voted for the “right” before (40 percent of Turkey traditionally votes right of center) say they must vote for the “left” this time to send a strong secularist message, or as one woman put it, “to end it” for the Islamists once and for all.  Crushed by the 1980 military coup that brought stability after years of chaos but also wiped out any organized politics left of center, “the left” as Americans might imagine it is barely breathing in Turkey.  All politics shifted to the right.  This combined with the left’s inability to hold together for much more than a weather report keeps it from providing an alternative vision to neo-liberal policies and a well-funded right-populist religious movement.  As one major publishing mogul told us, “All the parties are centrist.”  Politics orients around secular/Islamist rather than left-right.

When a Headscarf Is More than a Headscarf

While the wearing of headscarves could be described as a question of religious choice, an argument feminists, for one, have swallowed hook, line, and sinker, in fact it is perceived as, and therefore has the power of, a political statement.  There is no question that most women who wear them are showing their piety, but the slippery slope of pop culture sliding into peer pressure and, in the long run, state policy is one of which secularists are wary.  There are also plenty of anecdotes of women who are getting paid to wear the headscarves by day to create an image of burgeoning numbers for the Islamists spending their wages in nightclubs after dark.

Like conservative Christians in the U.S. it’s easy and popular for Islamists to say they are not political and they are not backwards.  They believe in God after all — how controversial can that be?  And they believe in following God’s word — what’s so bad about teaching our children morality?  But as in the U.S., believers and nonbelievers who don’t subscribe to religious politics see through this.  They counter that one can believe in God without allowing God (or those who claim to represent him) to run the government.  One businessman related a story of an associate telling him that it was time to pray.  The secularist said, “You go pray, I’ll rest in the shadow of Ataturk.”

Urbanites or Not?

But both the laik (secularist) and the anti-laik factions say they support a radical change in Turkey’s constitution: Instead of the parliament electing the president — a largely ceremonial role except for its all important veto power, which the secular president has used liberally against his majority Islamist parliament — the people will elect their president directly.  This is a gamble for both sides.  The Islamists have illustrated their ability to organize.  Turkey’s industrialization policies of the last 80 years have caused a massive migration of villagers into the cities without providing enough jobs or other transitional services for them.  (By another not necessarily conflicting account, IMF policy has accelerated this move in the last 25 years dictating payment of subsidies to farmers to take their land out of production to create a reliance on wheat imports to increase Turkey’s dependence on international markets.)  They became villagers within cities, not urbanites.  “They slaughter goats in their bathrooms!” one middle-class resident of Ankara put it, aghast.  By 1960, at the height of this transition, half of Ankara’s entire population lived in squatter settlements or “tin towns,” referred to as “nightlandings” because overnight an entire neighborhood could spring up.  By law, if those homes were roofed and occupied they could not be torn down.  The 1980 coup wiped out the left, but the generals understood that people needed to put their passions somewhere, so they encouraged limited religious growth in the form of subsidized mosque construction and imam instruction.  As the political axis shifted, the religious right began to expand.  In the face of urbanization and industrialization and the radical shift of location and livelihood, people relied on weakening tribal and clan networks more than on a government that only sporadically provided any economic security.  Anti-secularist organizers and organizations provided much needed services and information to these uprooted village families and afforded them a viable and helpful new form of organization and identity.  But it came with political implications and loyalties.

They also provided much needed faith in the form of a renewed call to Islam that helped families cope in such difficult times and provided a sense of identity in the alien social and economic landscapes of the cities.  So what harm could come of it?  Secularists say “plenty.”  Turkey has always stood proud among its Islamist neighbors of the Middle East as a secular country, even though 99 percent of its population is Muslim.  Even today, 70 percent of Turks support secularism while only 30 percent support an Islamist republic.  Secular Turks brag of their universities, their industry, and their progressive thinking, and their constitution that as early as 1922 gave women equal rights.  Islamists threaten these gains, they say, with backward thinking and policies that would throw the republic fifty years into the past.  They want women out of sight of men.  They want to build covered hotel swimming pools just for women (and have already done so in Istanbul and in resorts along the coast).  They want women to ride in a separated place in the bus.  (How much work can anyone really get done wearing a chadoor?  It’s almost as debilitating as short skirts and spiked heels!)  And the woman question is just the tip of the iceberg, a symptom rather than a problem.  Staunch secularists say that what’s at stake is the difference between ruling by Turkey’s secular constitution and ruling by Islamic law.  The pretense of “moderate Islam” is a Machiavellian maneuver to gain control of the political apparatus, they say.  Complete power by the religious element of Turkey indicates a turn to the East, which many suspect is funding the movement from Saudi Arabia, while secular control indicates a continued wooing of the West.  Finally, they say, the AK Party only gained 35 percent of the parliamentary vote last time, but because of the splits among secularists, they control 60 percent of parliament.  (In a U.S. election when less than 50 percent of the voting public actually votes, we suffer the same rule by little more than a ¼ majority.)

On the other hand, this could well be a political debate between liberal and conservative, or modern and traditional, simply amplified by the symbolic power of a headscarf.  It is now the second, third, and fourth generation of these villagers who are “sitting in the capitol” as one expert put it.  They are true urbanites in lifestyle but ones who have developed new conservative and religious roots in their urban environs.

The EU’s Hand in This

It’s hard to tell sometimes what the leaders of the EU must be thinking when it comes to this complicated turning point in Turkey’s history.  On the one hand it is forcing Turkey to jump through a number of hoops called “democratic reforms” to make it conform more closely to an EU model.  While the term “democratic reforms” has a comfortable and familiar ring to it in America, some of these reforms have the effect of opening the door to Islamic rule, which secularists maintain is fundamentally anti-democratic, while others simply broaden the bridge of neo-liberal policy that provides a hardworking Turkish labor supply for multinational corporations constantly on the move to the next free meal of low wages and no regulations.  But Islamic rule can hardly be what the EU hopes to have happen in a country so close to membership, unless it is simply to create a no-win situation for Turkey — either conform to EU political standards and allow a take-over by Islamists who will withdraw any idea of EU membership, or don’t conform, continue secularist government, and face EU opposition.  But perhaps the question of Christian, Muslim, or secular isn’t the most important question for the powers that be.  As one politically-astute Turkish leftist pointed out, all of the major parties, including AKP, support neo-liberal policies and entry into the EU, and that seems to be the tunnel vision the EU and IMF are employing in their support for AKP, the frontrunner at the moment.

The Kurds

Then there is the Kurdish question, an annoying political quandary for the Turkish government that Kurds and their allies frame as a crucial human rights issue.  This election is doing nothing to mollify Europeans in that regard.  As we sat down to dinner with family and friends in Ankara May 22, an explosion rocked the other side of the city.  Six were killed and 80 wounded by a suicide bomber.  Only a short time before, election authorities had removed 116 people from the candidate rolls for being suspected associates of PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, a Marxist Leninist group.  Only a week earlier, a new manifestation of a Kurdish party sent death threats to all of the major parties demanding they withdraw their candidates in two Kurdish areas.  While the PKK did not claim the bombing, the timing is suspect.  (Others say the bombing did not have the signature of the PKK and some even suspect forces interested in driving up nationalist fervor.)  In any case, Kurds have little recourse as an ethnic minority.  They can’t meet the parliamentary standard of 10 percent of the vote to gain representation in parliament that was established by the 1980 coup to quell the dissension of the 1970s.  (Neither, conveniently, can the remnants of the left.)  Some Turks hold out hope that Kurds will eventually assimilate and point to prominent Kurds in all walks of life, while others say it’s unjust not to give them a voice in the governing of their own people.  There is talk that some will run as independents and may gain some seats.  It’s not unheard of for Kurds to hold seats in parliament or even to serve as ministers.  One expert who has lived in the Kurdish region for nine years said of the three candidates from three parties running in that area: people will simply vote for the one they like.  It’s more important to “have a man in Ankara” than to worry about which party he represents, she said.

But the Kurdish question has bled, quite literally, over the border, where the U.S. has supported a Kurd-controlled northern Iraq.  Some experts say unequivocally that Kurds are pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing in the region, driving out every non-Kurd, especially in the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, in the hope of some day establishing a permanent, internationally-recognized, American-backed independent oil state.  In this case, Turkey’s interest is bifold — one Kurdish vision of this state includes about half of what is currently Turkey!  But additionally, Turkey has a strong economic interest in the stability of the region.  If the U.S. continues its disruptions, now even more so with its threats toward Iran, Turkey will suffer the loss of overland transport that it so heavily relies upon.  It isn’t called the crossroads for nothing, and every time the U.S. decides to toss another grenade into the Middle East, Turkey’s economy takes a dive.  The U.S. never did pay reparations to Turkey for lost trade due to the first Gulf War.  Turks can’t expect anything from the U.S. now.

The Generals

In the meantime, one EU hoop many Turks take special umbrage to is the demand that Turkey emasculate its military.  The Turkish army is by some estimates as large as all the armies in Europe combined, but more importantly, it is, by the Turkish constitution, the keeper of the Republic.  This is an unfathomable notion for many Americans, yet many Turks take comfort in knowing that if the government moves too far away from Ataturk’s secularist parliamentary model of democracy, the generals will start to squawk, as they did just a few weeks ago when the Islamists attempted to install Gül as president, a move that would have sealed the country’s fate as Islamist for many years to come (not altogether dissimilar to the conservative coup pulled by George W. Bush and his friends in the religious right in 2000 and 2004 when they were able to unilaterally control all three branches of the U.S. government).  Unlike the American military, which is heavily influenced by the religious right, the Turkish military is staunchly secularist, an outlook that is perpetuated in the military schools and training.  Like the American military, it sees itself as politically neutral, but it has a central role in maintaining political balance within Turkey.

The Elites

Back in Istanbul at the anthropology conference at the end of May, we spoke with Jenny White who has done ethnographic studies of neighborhoods in Istanbul for more than a decade.  When we asked her what was at stake in the coming election her answer was quick: “It’s a power struggle between old elites and new elites,” she said.  It’s very much a matter of who gets to shell out the favors and the money.  In the mid-1900s those favors went to the Koç family and the Sabanci family and others who were true capitalists but also true believers in the Kemalist vision.  The Koç family remains the richest in the country, but lately, the state’s largess has gone to an entirely different crowd, like the one that runs Aytaç — one of the country’s largest sausage companies which also has its hands in cheese and water — all halal of course, the Muslim version of kosher.  It gets doled out to the men known as the Anatolian Tigers, who took their turn under recent AK Party control receiving government favors.  They invested in what are now massive corporations inland and donate heavily to the AKP.  “They made being Islamist chic, especially when their party won,” White said.  “They were upwardly mobile, good looking, rich . . . that had to be driving the secularists crazy!”  But secularist elites aren’t the only ones hurting.  One Kemalist small businesswoman in Ankara complained that she lost her life savings when her business was starved out by the AKP which steers work away from “the children of Ataturk” and toward its own supporters.

Winners and Losers

Economically speaking, though, it seems little will change no matter who gets elected.  As one political activist said, “The IMF is in charge.”  The U.S. is effectively backing the Islamist AKP — they are God-fearing and have been the ruling party, so it’s politically and economically expedient to do so — while it continues to train Turkish military leaders, some of whom have complicated the political life of the AKP in this election.  And while the money flows in from international investment and the IMF, it doesn’t get far.

“They are following the IMF plan, and the macroeconomic indicators for Turkey look good, but it’s not trickling down,” said White.  “There are huge, huge amounts of money being made, but it’s going into pockets, political pockets.”

Turks from a variety of walks of life confirmed this.  One highly-placed player in the crucial Turkish meat industry verified that wages in most factories are about $400 per month, rising an estimated 20 percent after the first year, to $500, but then quite variably and much less after that.  A textile factory auditor told us workers in that industry make $290 per month.  Despite this auditor’s watchdog role, others tell us the factories are like ovens, workers have no health insurance, and most families have to find income in a variety of places.  And no, the wages don’t go that much farther in a country like Turkey.  Modest housing costs run about $250 per month and food and clothing take much more than what’s left.  Meanwhile, one of the wealthiest men in Turkey told us Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP prime minister, has been “very good for business.”  He would know.

Yet organized labor hovers around 5 percent, and there’s little sign of a rebirth.  Leftists are largely detached from factory workers, tending instead to congregate at universities, organize social forums, and even stage increasingly popular labor festivals, while kapali women scour their local neighborhoods talking to newcomers and recruiting like wildfire.  So where’s the disconnect?  As one Turk explained, despite its rapid growth, Turkey is not a traditional western industrialized state.  Most of Turkey is still a feudal state with a veneer of industry on top.  (The feudal lords described by nationally-beloved novelist Yashar Kemal throughout the 20th century still operate in much of eastern Anatolia, and are even characterized in a current popular television series.)  While European states are organized according to class interests, he said, Turks maintain connections to clan, family, and region that obfuscate their class interests.  So the left’s disconnect with these village networks is only one part of the success of the Anatolian tigers and the relative lack of class consciousness among peasants-turned-workers.

Secularists we talked to predict a high turnout for the parliamentary elections in July, despite the fact that some 35 percent of Turks go on vacation that month and will not be where they can vote.  Anticipating a drop in domestic tourism based on lower advanced sales than usual, hotels on the coasts are making various offers to potential customers.  These range from free daytrips by bus back to people’s home cities to vote, to no charge for the night they may miss driving themselves home.  Meanwhile the age-old tricks of distributing land deeds and other pre-election favors (an echo of Chicago-style politics) are surely continuing in the outlying communities.

People are passionate about the upcoming election.  On May 31, Izmir hosted the first-ever night horse races.  Thousands of families attended opening night, children perched on daddies’ shoulders, women pushing baby carriages, teens waving to the cameras that broadcast the live entertainment and the races.  A full moon glowed from orange to white as it rose beyond the illuminated track to complement a beautiful and festive night.  The giant television screen that ran replays and photo finishes of the races flashed a photo of the moon rising behind the minaret of a nearby mosque.  The Izmir region is the only one where AKP did not gain seats in the last election, and the crowd went crazy when one of the entertainers launched into what has become the ballad of secularists living the last few years under national AKP rule.  It is the song Ataturk had commissioned for the 10th anniversary of the republic, and like the “battle of the national anthems” scene from the movie Casablanca, the crowd stood and sang boisterously, cheering when it was over.

But is this passion, at horse races, coffee shops, university cafes, and even among taxi drivers and bread vendors, enough to guarantee the future of a secular republic?  “Turks don’t know what they want, only what they don’t want,” one man said.  Many we spoke to, admittedly limited to secularists, believe the rising swell of politicized Islam is enough to turn that majority of Turks out to tell the world, once and for all, what it is Turks don’t want.

Then what?  No matter who wins, it will make little difference to the cafe owner who loses his family business to a new Starbucks down the street or the Anatolian craftswoman whose job moves to the Wal-Mart factory.  Economic inequality will worsen.  The smog over unregulated industrial sites will thicken.  Membership in the EU will remain elusive.  While the magician tells Turks and the rest of us to keep our eyes on the hand with the headscarf, he will be hiding neo-liberalism under every shell we never pick.

Suzan Erem is a freelance writer and former union organizer and communications director.  Paul Durrenberger is a socio-cultural anthropologist and professor at Penn State University.  Their latest book, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5, will be released in January 2008 from Monthly Review Press.

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