Ballots on the Bosphorus: The Turkish Elections
By Gar Smith /
December 22, 2007

In the capital of Ankara, festive strings of ballot banners fly high over the equestrian statue of Kemal Atatürk. Credit: Photos by Gar Smith
ISTANBUL -- It was mid-afternoon in the ancient city of Ephesus and the temperature was hitting 115°F. The marble walls were reflecting the heat, turning the ruins into a huge solar cooker. Wilting tourists scuttled from one tree-shaded oasis to the next. And we were part of the sweating hoard cowering in the shade.

We had arrived in Istanbul in July, just in time for the national elections where the ruling Justice and Development Party was facing off against five other major parties. Asked about the state of local politics, Bechlül, our guide, tells us a tale.

Once upon a time, a Donkey, Camel and Horse all lived in a paradise far from humankind. One day, the Devil arrived and tempted them to visit the world of men.

Forty years later, they find their way back to Paradise.

Horse and Camel are old, bedraggled, broken and embittered.

"We were taken by men and made to pull carts," they complained. "We were beaten and whipped when we grew tired. Men are animals!"

Donkey, however, returned fat and sleek, his coat shinning and a look of contentment on his face.

"What happened to you in the world of men?" his incredulous companions inquired.

"Well, I wandered into a city one day when they were having an election and started to bray," the donkey explained.

"And the next thing I knew, I had been elected Prime Minister."

The Frictions behind the Election
At 5PM, Saturday, Bechlül jokes that he can no longer discuss politics. "The election begins tomorrow so there can be no more campaigning." When we ask if he's going to vote, he explains he won't be able to since he's traveling with the tour bus. Large turnouts are common in Turkish elections, since the balloting is held on Sundays, not on a workday. Since voting is mandatory, anyone who doesn't vote has to pay a fine. Bechlül will have to pay the fine (a fact he hopes we will recall when it comes time to tip the guide and driver at the end of our journey).

The Turks have experienced a rocky history beset by high inflation, IMF bullying, corruption, nepotism and "a few military coups." When it comes to elections, anything can happen. As Bechlül observes, "Turkey is a country of last-minute changes." Bechlül offers another truism, this one about politics: "First there's an election and then they spend the next four years arguing."

Incumbent President Abdullah Gul's candidacy is controversial in some circles because his wife wears the Islamic headscarf, which is banned in state institutions (including the presidential palace). The day before the election, Army Gen. Yaser Buyukanit reminded Turks of the military's recent interventionist history when he pointedly warned those "trying to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish Republic."

Rumors also circulated that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan harbored a secret "Islamic agenda," but most Turks seem to minimize such fears as inconsequential in the comfortable fondue that is Turkish society. The Turkish Daily News captured the "complex nature of Turkish society" in a July 20 election-week analysis that portrayed Sirinevler, Instanbul's working-class district, as a place where you can see "headscarf-wearing shop assistants selling bikinis and swimsuit shops alongside shops selling veils."

The President is elected every seven years. There are 500 deputies in Parliament and 300 are needed to form a ruling party. The Prime Minister leads the party. The PM can remain in office in perpetuity.

Elections are usually held in November but July's surprise election was announced in May, which meant the opposition had to scramble to line up candidates and put their campaigns in gear. But Turkey is a take-charge nation and the parties rose to the challenge. More than 20 mainstream and independent parties fielded candidates. The list included the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People's Party (CHP, founded by Atatürk in 1923), the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP), the populist, anti-EU Young Party (GP), the Democrat Party (DP, forged by a merger of the formerly dueling True Path and Motherland parties) and 50 "independent" candidates.

With 20 million residents, Istanbul carries significant electoral clout. In any election, 70 of the 550 representatives elected to serve in Ankara will hail from Istanbul. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is from Istanbul.

The plethora of independent candidates was necessitated by the rule that requires political parties to capture 10 percent of the votes in a parliamentary election -- the highest such barrier in Europe. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Part (DTP), unable to capture the threshold, fielded a scramble of candidates who ran as independents.

Central plazas and main streets in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir are canopied with web-works of colorful pennants that crisscross the sky. Huge banners hang from buildings, bridges, boats and public fountains.

The symbol of the ruling AK Party is a lightbulb. "But if you look closely," a Turkish student tells us, "you'll see that it is broken. We have a joke that goes: What's the difference between an AK lightbulb and a regular lightbulb. The answer: When you turn on the AK bulb, instead of light, you get darkness."

Turkey's campaign organizers put US mediaworkers to shame. These mega-billboards rising along the waters of the Bosphorus completely cover the sides of multi-story high-rises.
The Outcome of the Election
Paper ballots were cast from morning until dusk. After the polls closed, I turned on Turkish TV and watched as four different stations showed the count as ballots were tabulated. By 9 PM, 91% of the votes had been counted and the final results were tallied by 10. By what act of magic did Turkey manage to out-perform an "advanced democracy" like the US? It turns out that Turkey doesn't rely on electronic voting machines to "speed up" the process. It uses inked stamps to mark paper ballots that are stuffed into wooden boxes. The ballots are hand-counted. And the system works.

The vote is clear: the AKP has taken 47% of the votes and Erdogan will continue to lead the country. But there were some surprises. One was the large number of women candidates who surged into office.

The number of female parliamentarians more than doubled from 24 to 50 -- a historic high for the Turkish Parliament. Istanbul alone elected 16 female deputies. One of the new deputies was Dîlek Yüksel, a 30-year-old mother. Other new parliamentarians included Güldal Mumcu (whose journalist husband was assassinated in 1993), Aysel Tugluk (a lawyer for Kurdish PKK head Abdullah Öcalan who was censured after she referred to her client as "Honorable Öcalan") and Pervin Buldan (wife of a murdered PKK sympathizer).

But the most remarkable election victory was scored by Sebahat Tunsel who ran for office from inside a jail cell. Tunsel had been confined on suspicion of being a member of the outlawed PKK. When Tunsel won election, she also won parliamentary immunity from criminal prosecution and the Turkish government was forced to release her from prison. She celebrated her liberation by leading a raucous victory parade through the streets of Istanbul.

Women now constitute 9.1 percent of the Turkish parliament but as Turkish Daily News reporter Yasemin Sim Esmen observed: "This number is not enough as it stays below the global rate of 16 percent." The US -- with 16 women in the Senate and 71 in the House -- boasts 16.3% representation but still trails behind countries like Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Vietnam.

Turkey, Iraq and the US
Turkey was once the most pro-American turf in the region. Today, according to a Pew Center poll, Turkey is one of the most anti-American nations on Earth with only 9% of Turks admitting a fondness for the US. In a July 31 Wall Street Journal essay, Washington Institute Senior Fellow Soner Cagaptay attributed this dramatic shift to the US occupation of Iraq and "the lack of US action in response to terror attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, from its safe haven in northern Iraq."

Many Turks see the US as a terror-enabler, responsible for some of the 30,000 deaths that have resulted from the Kurdish resistance. In November 2005, the head of the AKP's Human Rights Commission accused US troops of committing massacres in Iraq. In 2006, a top AKP official charged that the US was involved in an organ-harvesting operation in Iraq (a charge made in a controversial documentary called "Valley of the Wolves," a blockbuster hit that has been seen by 4.5 million Turks.)

On Friday, July 20, we awoke to read in the Turkish Daily News that Turkey's army had "heavily shelled Kurdish rebel targets just inside the border of northern Iraq.... About 100 shells were fired at an area near the town of Zakho and residents were forced to flee."

There are 900,000 soldiers in the Turkish military, making it the second largest in Europe. All Turkish men serve 15 months in Jandarme service except for University students who serve six-month terms as officers.

The Galatin Bridge was bedecked in national flags as boats drapped in political banners chugged through the waters of the Golden Horn.
Schools & Culture
Every morning schools across the vast country open with a national anthem. Unlike American children, Turkish school kids do not proclaim a loyaly oath -- they do not pledge allegiance to a flag. The Turkish anthem begins as a statement of personal self-esteem: "I am a Turk! I am industrious!" It ends with a pledge to Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey: "O Great Atatürk, I vow that I will march unhesitatingly along the road you opened, toward the goal you showed."

Turkey provides for eight years of mandatory schooling "soon to expand to 12 years." Schooling begins at the age of six. There is a controversial three-hour national test -- a "life-changing" exam that determines who will go on to college. The exam comes at the end of June when 1.57 million students compete. Students who don't pass can retake the exam three more times, but each time, additional points are deducted from your possible score "so you really have to excel."

This year there were 50,000 students competing for 200 slots in Turkey's prestige Medical School. The schools are tuition-free. Students pay only for books and board. Recently, private schools have started to appear to meet the needs of Turkey's growing population. Our Turkish friends insist that their schools are considered "among the best in the world."

Students wear uniforms but no headscarves, as befits a secular state. Christian and Jewish symbols also are banned from state schools.

In Turkey, 99% of the mosques are financed and built by the local residents. Many small neighborhoods boast more than a dozen mosques -- some ornate and others as simple as a single prefab tower attached to a one-story house. Imams are appointed by the government, must be university graduates and must be certified by the state's Religious Affairs Department.

Memorable Moments in Turkish Media
In every city we visit, there's an invigorating goulash of international broadcasts to choose from including broadcasts in German (something of a second language in much of Turkey), Spain, Russia, Britain. There's the BBC, MSNBC, CNN, CNNTurk, NTV. Broadcast fare includes dubbed versions of Home Improvement and the George Lopez show and subtitled episodes of The Simpsons. As well as scads of Turkish sit-coms, live music shows, endless Turkish pop music videos. American basketball is big in Turkey. Just mention "NBA" and see the smiles you get.

Turkish TV offers a rebroadcast of a BBC talk-show called "Hardtalk" that seems modeled on Chris Matthew's "Hardball." The host makes it a nasty habit to interrupt, challenge and demean his guests. Mike Wallace on steroids. By contrast, a televised debate on Al Jazeera TV showed a Hamas representative lecturing an Israeli official while a third person moderated. The Hamas spokesperson, a stocky professorial gentleman in a business suit offset by a tie that carried a political message in Arabic, was ticking off a long list of points and grievances about the plight of Palestinians. He spoke with urgency and passion and he was going on a great length -- four minutes, five minutes, seven minutes.

Occasionally, the camera would cut to the face of the Israeli spokesperson who could be seen rolling his eyes and shaking his head in grim disagreement. But no one interrupts the speaker. Finally, after eight minutes of uninterrupted fulminating, it's Israel's turn to respond.

Once again, the speaker rails with unbridled emotion, unchecked by the moderator, as the Hamas representative listens restively, rolling his eyes and shaking his head in profound disagreement, looking aghast and aggrieved. But not once does either speaker interrupt or try to shout over the voice of the other. This kind of civilized discourse is rare on mainstream media in the West.

Nor was the debate broken up by commercials for new cars, shopping malls, hair-care products or medicated tablets to cure migraines, insomnia, indigestion or impotence. This was TV as originally configured -- a noncommercial tool for news, democratic debate and popular education. Ironic that one has to travel to Turkey and tune in Al Jazeera to rediscover that how television can serve democracy rather than commerce.

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