Minorities seeking a say in affairs of land

75669181.jpgISTANBUL – After years of barely making their presence known, a record number of candidates in the upcoming local elections hail from minority communities across Turkey. Many are running for seats on municipal assemblies and some are running for mayorships, but all of them are hitting the campaign trail to raise awareness and give voice to their communities’ concerns

Minorities in Turkey are stepping up to make their voices heard in Turkish politics, with a record number running for municipal posts in the upcoming March 29 local elections.

Past local elections have seen on average five minority candidates nationwide but this year there are 30, showing both an increase in the interest of minority communities toward Turkish politics and an effort by political parties to seek their votes. There is especially a significant rise in the number of Turks of Armenian descent running in the elections, with most preferring the leftist Republican People’s Party, or CHP, or Democratic Left Party, or DSP.

There is no organizational or social backing for these minority candidates, with most oblivious to the others’ existence. There have been minority candidates who have run for municipal assembly in the past, but in this year’s election, one municipality will feature two minority candidates running for the same mayoral post in Adalar, the islands of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

DSP’s Dr. Karabet Yayla, who is of Armenian descent, and Yusuf Bahar, a Jewish Turk, are both running for Adalar mayor. The race appears to be between the two because most of the residents of Adalar are Turks of Greek, Armenian or Jewish descent.

The candidate from the center-right Democrat Party, or DP, 37-year-old Bahar, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review that he saw no negative or positive reaction from the Jewish community on his candidacy.

“My grandfather was elected to Parliament in the 1950s from the DP. My interest in politics comes from the family. More importantly, I am a citizen of Turkey and want to have a say in the running of the country.” Bahar also said mistaken state policies were to blame for the largely apolitical minority communities.

His main competition, Yayla, said the Armenian community was slowly becoming interested in politics and predicting more members of the minority communities would run in the next election. “As a mayoral candidate, I started with Adalar Municipality. This is the perfect place for a first step because it has a much more cosmopolitan social structure,” he said.

Also, Turkish Jew Emin Levi from the Motherland Party, or ANAVATAN, will run for a seat on the Adalar municipal assembly.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has selected eight members of minority communities to run for municipal assemblies in Istanbul.

Definition of minority in Turkey

In Turkey, the word “minority” is a subject of sensitivity and ongoing debate. While the word in common usage can refer to any distinct social group whose numbers are relatively small, there are three legally established, statutory minorities in Turkey: Greeks, Armenians and Jews.

This definition was written into the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 at the behest of Western powers and obligated the new Turkish Republic to acknowledge the special status of these groups. Some small groups, notably the Ancient Syriac Orthodox community, rejected the status at the time as divisive and remained outside the legal definition. The Jewish community also rejected portions of the Lausanne designation as a violation of social cohesion. Reflecting the sensibilities of the time, Lausanne regarded all Muslims in Turkey as a single “majority.” But the Constitution does not recognize religious or ethnic affiliation in defining citizenship. Under the law, the word “Turk,” while regarded in some quarters as an ethnic label, does not mean anything more than a person of Turkish citizenship.

In the cultural realm, the many groups that demographically or culturally can be described as minorities in Turkey include the Alevi religious sect, the ethnic Kurdish population and many others, ranging from the Black Sea region’s Laz population, to a large Arab-speaking community in southeastern Turkey, to the Roma population who have lived in Istanbul since Byzantine times. Raffi Hermonn, who is a CHP candidate for the Adalar municipal assembly, said the increase in the Armenian community’s interest in politics is a reaction to the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007. “The mentality that murdered Dink thought Armenians would just cower or even leave the country. But the gun misfired and these elections are the best proof. Armenians want to have a say in politics. The participation rate is quite normal because Armenians are more numerous compared to other minority communities,” he said.

Vasken Barın, a Turkish Armenian who has served as the deputy mayor of Mustafa Sarıgül for the past decade in the Istanbul municipality of Şişli, is running with Sarıgül for the DSP in these elections.

Turkey’s first Turkish Armenian deputy mayor, Barın said from the moment they started to run ÅžiÅŸli Municipality they started to restore schools, cemeteries and hospitals in the community. “Before us, nothing was done for them,” he said.

Syriac-Christian Selim Malgaz is running for the CHP for the Bakırköy municipal assembly while Turkish-Armenian Haço Keleş picked the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, to run for a seat in the same assembly. Attempts to contact Keleş proved unfruitful, with the press secretary of the party saying that due to reports in some dailies he had been turned into a target.

Minorities in politics

The introduction of minority, or non-Muslim, communities into politics started with modernization efforts during late Ottoman times.

Professor Ayhan Aktar from Istanbul Bilgi University said between 1876 and 1908, the portion of non-Muslims among Ottoman politicians had increased to 29 percent. “This process ended in 1912,” he said. “The Ottoman mentality was more inclusive, while the nation-state is exclusive, with ethnicity a primary determining factor,” he said. After the founding of the Republic in 1923 until 1935, no minority community member occupied even the lowest-level civil servant job, said Aktar. He also said minorities were discriminated against throughout the Republican era. “According to the civil law enacted in 1926, the most important characteristic of potential civil servants was being of Turkish origin, preventing minorities from seeking a state career,” Aktar said, adding this obstacle was removed in 1960.