Political Upheaval in Turkey-May, 2007

“If they come in, we’re screwed. Especially the women.” This sentiment was expressed by my friend Duygu about the inevitable AK party presidency, and I know it’s shared by many Turkish women. Millions, according to a recent demonstration. But why?

I have to admit, I’m still trying to figure it out. The present political situation in Turkey is complicated, and emotions run high. We’re all safe, though concerned.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper

First of all, you have to put things into some historical perspective. Turkey is a young republic—it didn’t become an independent nation until 1923, a few years after women got the vote in the United States (1920). Flappers and all that? Well, that’s when Turkey stepped from the Ottoman Empire into the modern world.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known as the Father of the Turkish Republic, is greatly beloved by the Turks—at least most of them. Every public building, every office, shop, workshop, and nearly every home displays a picture of Ataturk. I have a photo collection of Ataturk statues, and I doubt there’s a town in Turkey without an Ataturk statue and at least one Ataturk Caddesi (Street). We have both on campus.


One of many Ataturk statues

Ataturk instituted monumental changes in Turkey: in addition to establishing the republic, he changed Turkish writing from Arabic to the Roman alphabet; he outlawed the fez; he oversaw a huge population exchange with Greece (Christians to Greece, Muslims to Turkey); he had the people choose surnames; he gave women equal legal rights; and the list goes on. (Turkey had the world’s first female supreme court justice.) Ataturk is the reason Turkey stands as a bridge between the Arab States and the Western world; he was incredibly forward-thinking.

As a secular democracy, Turkey operates with a representative parliament, a prime minister, and a president. The military was established as a separate entity–a “watchdog” to assure Turkey’s continuation as a secular democracy.

Therein lies the rub.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ It’s all about Ataturk’s plan

The AKP (an Islamist-rooted party) presently holds the majority of seats in the parliament, which just began a three-vote process to select a new president. Though the president has little more than veto power, the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, has used that power repeatedly to veto bills he felt promoted a religious agenda. Abdullah Gul, the present (shoe-in) candidate for president, is a member of the Islamist AK Party, and his wife wears a scarf, which concerns many secularists.

In past weeks, Turkish flags have hung from apartment windows to demonstrate solidarity with Ataturk’s secular values. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), calls the presidential palace “the last bastion of secularism” and doesn’t want a president with an Islamist background.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper / All ages and genders are concerned.

Of course, the vast majority (97%) of Turks are muslims, so this battle is not about another religion seeking power. Instead, many Turks seek to preserve their secular government, especially in light of Muslim fundamentalists controlling nearby countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. I can understand their concern.

Last Sunday over a million people amassed for a huge demonstration in support of secularism. That’s ten percent of the population of Istanbul–an impressive showing. These people staged a peaceful demonstration, and we all hope members of parliament heard their voices.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ MILLIONS demonstrated.

As in American politics, each party is trying to outmaneuver the other. Secularist members of parliament boycotted the first presidential vote, which was taken without a quorum. Last night the supreme court declared the first vote invalid. Secularists are jockeying to have a national parliamentary election before the next presidential vote is taken. They also want to lower the minimum age for parliamentary membership to 25.

It’s all very confusing. No one is sure what the next steps will be, but one concern is that if the government shifts toward an Islamist stance, the military will intervene (as it has done three times in the past, in both peaceful and bloody coups). The military General Staff issued “a harsh statement claiming that islamic reationaryism was on the rise and threatened that it had the right to intervene if secularism is not respected.” (Today’s Zaman, 4/30/2007) Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, an AK party member who was expected to run for president until mass protests against him changed the tide, is encouraging people to remain calm and take a cooperative stance in these proceedings. Emotions are just running too high for that. Every new piece of news is disturbing to millions. Turks are an emotive people, and they treasure their freedoms highly.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper/ It (our rights) cannot be sold!

In this country where women are legal equals, social equality is far from a reality, except in the higher socioeconomic circles. If I were a Turkish woman, I’d have been out there demonstrating.

In the best of all possible worlds, everyone should be free to do what they want.

In Turkey, the reality of Islamic Fundamentalism is too close for comfort.


Photo: Millyet Newspaper
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2 thoughts on “Political Upheaval in Turkey-May, 2007

  1. It’s mostly alawites (a muslim sect apart from the sunni majority) who went to those demonstrations. There is a wealthy minority , oligarchs similar to russia, who have vested interest in the status quo, you know like most of the people like Koc, Sabanci, Aydin Dogan, etc. Turkey might look a western democracy on the outside, but on the inside it has been governed by an elite of the chp, the republican party, which behaves pretty much like the communist party used to in the former soviet state.
    These people have been manipulating the majority of Turks, sunnis, alawite and secularists.
    They have together about 15-20% of the turkish economy, but get 85 to 90% of all government subsidies, contracts etc.
    For instance, aydin dogans oil company owed the government almost a billion dollars of taxes. they negotiated and negotiated and now only have to pay 60 million dollars. What do you call that?
    There is a reason why the campus is in the middle of nowhere, with a gate to keep out the masses.
    These people are now trying to play one muslim group out against the other to keep their cushy lives intact.
    But I think they are going to fail this time. Democracy will prevail.
    Everybody is going to need to work for a living in turkey and pay their taxes. Even the elite.

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