Miners, prostitutes and pop singers try to break Turkey's electoral stalemate

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The Independent Online

Like all campaign buses, the Mercedes coach fizzing through Istanbul's western suburbs comes complete with an impressive sound system. What distinguishes it is that the high, nasal voice blaring out a hip-hop version of a popular folk song belongs to a man who is arguably Turkey's biggest pop star.

Born in a cave in the south-eastern city of Urfa, 55-year-old Ibrahim Tatlises is sitting blowing kisses at passers-by from the front seat.

His albums are already chart-toppers throughout the Bosphorus to the Middle East but now he has entered a different kind of popularity contest - he is running for parliament and a posting as the country's new Minister for Women.

"I know I've got a bad reputation", he says, referring to a string of abused girlfriends who have turned up on TV sporting the black eyes he gave them. "But I'm a good family man. Women like me."

For once, he is unlikely to get what he wants. The party he is running for, founded in 2002 by the scion of a family convicted by a US court of defrauding the mobile phone giant Motorola of $2bn (£1bn), looks almost certain to win less than the 10 per cent of national votes necessary for parliamentary representation.

Some would say that is a good thing: Genc Parti's promises to slash petrol prices, raise unemployment benefits and heavily subsidise hazelnut sales would make short work of a Turkish economy still recovering from a 2001 crisis.

Genc and Tatlises apart, though, there is a growing consensus that the 10 per cent threshold - the highest in the world - is a major stumbling block for a political system that appears close to deadlock.

A former cabinet minister and - until 2001 - general secretary of the country's main secularist party, Tarhan Erdem blames the threshold for Turkey's failure to solve its Kurdish problem. Despite winning up to 70 per cent of votes in parts of the Kurdish south-east, Kurdish nationalists have repeatedly failed to win seats in parliament. "By excluding these people, you radicalise them," Erdem says.

Kurds are not the only ones excluded from parliament. Because of the threshold, 45 per cent of votes cast in Turkey's 2002 parliamentary elections were wasted, and the former Islamist Justice and Development Party took nearly two-thirds of seats with less than 35 per cent of the vote. That may have ensured a strong, reformist government but it also laid the foundations for tensions over secularism that culminated on 27 April with a threat of military intervention.

Now, in an unprecedented protest at an unrepresentative system, hundreds of candidates - including prostitutes, miners, transvestites and ultra-nationalists - are standing as independent candidates as a means of sidestepping the threshold. Among them, only the Kurdish nationalists are assured of seats.

But the most unusual campaign of this election, and the one which throws the most light on Turkey's current travails, is being run out of a two-room office in central Istanbul. "Turkey's political system has never tolerated dissenting voices, but it only takes one voice to turn everything upside down, and we will be more than one", says Baskin Oran.

Behind him, on the wall, pale blue campaign posters pun on his first name, it translates as : "Vote overpoweringly!" A well-known dissident university lecturer who has spent the past four months in the company of a bodyguard because of nationalists' threats to his life, Oran needs 60,000 votes to ensure his election as "an independent voice for the left".

In normal circumstances, that would be difficult. Even in Istanbul, liberal-minded social democrats such as Mr Oran are in short supply. But his campaign has been given surprisingly wide coverage, and the ranks of his supporters look set to be swollen by the strong sense of revulsion liberal Turks felt at the murder of Hrant Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist, in January.

The big parties have labelled Mr Oran and similar candidates elsewhere in Turkey's three biggest cities as "sterile democrats". "These people live in my district, and not one of them has come to me with their demands", says Egemen Bagis, Istanbul deputy for the AKP.

He goes on to describe the 10 per cent threshold as essential for political stability, ignoring the fact that half of the six governments formed since it was introduced by a military junta in 1983 were coalitions. What he also ignores is that much of the attraction of independent candidates lies in the established parties themselves, whose idea of internal democracy often seems feudal.

Now 69, the main opposition leader Deniz Baykal has led his party to four successive electoral defeats since he took over in 1988. All attempts to remove him have failed.

In a clear jibe at Mr Baykal, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised this week to resign if his government failed to gain a parliamentary majority this weekend.

In reality, his self-styled conservative democratic party is no less leader-centred. When Mr Erdogan left a third of his party's current deputies off the list for this election, he reportedly did so without consulting the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, his closest associate.

"Erdogan runs the party in the same way [chief of staff Yasar] Buyukanit runs the army", said Hakan Yavuz, a political scientist who has just edited a book about the AKP.

"That's the political culture. These people breathe the same air." Such authoritarianism would perhaps not matter so much if the leaders offered real vision.

Vision, though, is one thing that seems in increasingly short supply. Erdogan's refusal to compromise over elections for Turkey's new president played an important part in the secularist crisis of April. His party may have pushed through radical reforms that ensured a start to Turkey's EU accession efforts in 2004 but he has spent this electoral campaign mocking the nationalist party for failing to execute a Kurdish separatist leader captured in 1999.

The secularist opposition, meanwhile, has hidden a total absence of policy behind a discourse both increasingly nationalistic and ambivalent towards democracy. Failure to block Abdullah Gul's presidential candidacy, Deniz Baykal warned the Supreme Court this April, could drag Turkey "into open conflict."

His words were widely interpreted as a reference to the army-backed execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes - spiritual ancestor of today's right-wing government - after the 1960 coup.

"The tragedy of Turkish democracy is that it lacks a real civilian opposition", says Omer Taspinar, Turkey expert with the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "There's AKP or the army." Ahmet Insel, the campaign manager for Baskin Oran, describes Turkey's problem as the absence of a real social-democratic option.

The secularist opposition's policy, he says, "is to reinforce fear, fear of Kurds, fear of the West, fear of enemies of the state, fear of Islamic law, fear of the military."

How the parties stand

AKP : 40 per cent

The centre-right Justice and Development Party is ruling group, with a background in political Islam. Led by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

CHP: 19.7 per cent

Republican People's Party is the main opposition centre-left party in Turkey. It is headed by Deniz Baykal, pictured, and is secular.

MHP: 10.8 per cent

Nationalist Movement Party is a far-right party that has made pledges to restrict house sales to foreigners and to hang a jailed Kurdish rebel leader.

GP: 8.0 per cent & DP: 7.0 per cent

The GP - Young Party - and DP - Democrat Party - are centre-right parties with secular values.

Independent candidates: 5.2 per cent

A great number of the independent candidates are Kurds who are supported by the Kurdish national party.

Undecided: 9.3 per cent

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