Big Changes Open Politics to Turkish Minorities

ISTANBUL — Markus Urek was 15 when his Syriac Christian family grew so fearful for the lives of their children in Turkey that they sent them abroad.

Syriac Christians have lived in southeastern Anatolia for almost two millennia, but over the past decades they have dwindled to a tiny minority in the Turkish republic, their numbers reduced by poverty, persecution and the war fought between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish Army on their ancestral homeland.

Mr. Urek spent years shuttling between Germany, Turkey and the United States to complete his education before returning to settle in Ankara last year.

Now he is running for Parliament. “If I am elected, I will be the first Syriac deputy in the history of this country — not only in the Turkish Republic, but the Ottoman Empire as well,” Mr. Urek, 33, said in an interview. “Turkish democracy has improved. That’s why I have the courage to try.”

Just eight years ago, such a run for office would have been unthinkable, Mr. Urek said. “Every Syriac knew it was impossible to be in Parliament, that’s why no one tried.” Now, he said, “I think I have a chance.”

Mr. Urek, a devout Christian, is hoping for a place on the ticket of the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Turkey’s governing party, which he credits for much of the country’s political progress.

Turkey is preparing for a general election on June 12, and though little suspense surrounds the outcome, the campaign reflects just how radically this society has transformed itself in the past decade by widening individual, religious and ethnic rights under Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

Pollsters are unanimous in forecasting another victory for the AKP, with the latest polls predicting a share of 46 to 50 percent of the vote for the conservative party that has ruled Turkey since late 2002. Its closest rival, the secularist People’s Republican Party, or CHP, trails at 23 to 27 percent, while the rightist Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, lags at about 12 percent.

That scenario might look like a rerun of the 2007 election, in which the AKP got 47 percent of the vote, while the CHP won 21 percent and the MHP 14 percent. Yet, behind the broad poll numbers, there is plenty of buzz surrounding the campaign and the candidates.

Record numbers of citizens have come forward to run for Parliament, competing in primaries that end next Monday, when parties will have to submit their final tickets to the election commission. Almost 10,000 “candidate candidates,” as they are called in Turkish, have registered with the two leading parties, AKP and CHP.

That is good news to many observers. “The abundance of ‘candidate candidates’ is evidence of a belief in democracy” and its stability, the columnist Mehmet Barlas wrote last week in an editorial for the daily newspaper Sabah.

It is not only the sheer number of candidates, moreover, that is striking. “People from all walks of life and all segments of society want to participate” in the political process, Sahin Alpay, a political scientist and newspaper columnist, said in an interview. “It is really dramatic.”

Like Mr. Urek’s biography, many of the candidates’ stories illustrate the changes that Turkey has undergone in a relatively short time.

Leyla Zana, a for one, is a veteran Kurdish politician who is running as an independent candidate to circumvent the 10 percent barrier for getting into Parliament that her Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, cannot hope to surmount.

When she was first elected to Parliament in 1991, she caused a scandal by speaking a few words in Kurdish from the assembly’s lectern as she was sworn in, even though speaking Kurdish in public places was illegal at the time.

She was later stripped of her immunity and served 10 years in prison after a trial on charges of treason and membership in the Kurdistan Workers Party, the Kurd militant group.

This time around, Ms. Zana is free to campaign in Kurdish, a law explicitly permitting this having been passed by Parliament a year ago as part of the government’s so-called Kurdish opening, a set of reforms that also includes a Kurdish channel on the state-run broadcaster TRT.

And though Turkish remains the sole language of record in Parliament, the Kurdish taboo was broken two years ago, when a prosecutor in Ankara quashed proceedings against a deputy who addressed his parliamentary group in Kurdish.

While Kurds have been in and out of Parliament for decades, women like Fatma Bostan Unsal, a co-founder of the AKP, are hoping for their first crack at representation in these elections. Like two out of three Turkish women, Ms. Unsal wears a head scarf, which had previously prevented her from running for public office.
Although no laws explicitly prohibit the wearing of a head scarf in Parliament, the last woman to attempt this, a computer engineer named Merve Kavakci, was booed out of the assembly when she entered the chamber to be sworn in after elections in 1999. She was subsequently stripped of her mandate as well as her citizenship.

Since then, no party has dared nominate for Parliament a woman who wears a head scarf, but Ms. Unsal and a dozen other candidates who wear the scarf hope that is about to change.

“There is a very positive climate now,” Ms. Unsal said. “For the first time we are not isolated, but supported by civil society, especially by women’s rights groups.”

She pointed to the influential women’s group Ka.Der, which campaigns for more female representation in Parliament and has included a head-scarved writer among the businesswomen and female artists featured in its 2011 campaign posters, a first in its history.

A survey by the MetroPoll institute last month found that 78 percent of Turkish voters would find head-scarved deputies in Parliament “normal.” And, crucially, the fiercely secularist CHP has said it will put no obstacles in the way of a deputy who wears a head scarf, thus excluding the possibility of a repeat performance to the 1999 scene with Ms. Kavakci.

Still, neither the AKP nor any other party has yet committed itself to the nomination of a candidate who wears a head scarf. For all their internal polling and voting procedures, the final decision on a party’s ticket is still made by the party leader, under Turkey’s law on political parties. And while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP, has said he would not rule out such a nomination, he has been careful not to commit himself.

The AKP has reasons to be cautious, as Ms. Unsal conceded. As recently as 2008, the party narrowly escaped being closed down by the constitutional court for having attempted to lift the ban on head scarves on university campuses, which the court said violated the secularist spirit of the Constitution.

On the other hand, as she pointed out, the university head-scarf ban has since been quietly scrapped by a simple administrative act, and the constitutional court itself has been remodeled by a judicial reform package adopted in a referendum in September. “Even before the reform, the court did not manage to close the AKP,” Ms. Unsal argued. “It would be even harder now.”

Making their first stab at parliamentary representation in decades are the Armenian and the Greek-Orthodox communities, both Christian minorities. Last seen in Parliament half a century ago, before the 1960 military coup, members of both communities are among the candidates for this election.

Two Armenians and a Greek have signed up with the AKP, while one Armenian each is hoping to run for the CHP and the MHP, according to the Radikal newspaper.

The re-emergence of religious minorities onto the political scene is a result of their growing confidence, said Ayhan Aktar, a professor of sociology at Bilgi University in Istanbul who specializes in those minorities.

“There has been a kind of rapprochement” between the Turkish state and its religious minorities, Mr. Aktar said, citing steps like the recent appointment of an Armenian to the Foreign Ministry in Ankara, a first in the history of the republic.

“Minorities are now more at ease in politics,” he added.