Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sweating for Democracy

Suddenly summer arrived out of nowhere, on a cantaloupe breeze and a wave of sweaty lethargy. Long-sleeved shirts and sweaters beat a swift retreat into the dark recesses of the wardrobe; out pranced t-shirts, tanks, capris, sandals, sunscreen, electric fans. The gently caressing sunbeams, so sought-after only a week before, callously turned traitor, launching an aggressive full-frontal attack. The shade we had shunned through the not-so-long winter months became our sudden salvation.

It was on such a sweltering Sunday that over a million Turks gathered in Izmir's Alsancak district to defend democracy and the separation of religion and politics. Being in principal a supporter of both of these ideas, and admittedly hungry for a spectacle and something to write home about, I glopped on the sunblock, shelled out a fiver for a pretty little Turkish flag (it is a pretty flag -- no wonder they like to wave it) and made my way to the Bostanlı ferry which would take me across the bay. In the streets of Bostanlı, individual dots of red and white slowly trickled towards a common center of gravity, the ferry station. The terminal was a sea of red and white. People of every size, shape, age and gender had wrapped themselves in flags and red and white hats. Did I wear red and white? Actually, no. I wore a navy blue t-shirt and carried a red and white Turkish flag...a subconscious plug for my own kind of nationalism, I wonder? Levent, more environmentalist than nationalist, wore green. Whatever. Perhaps I exaggerate the symbolism.

The terminal was jam-packed, and the ferries were departing every 10 minutes (instead of the usual 30), low in the water and overloaded with flag-waving patriots. There was a festive feel in the air, more like people on their way to a backyard summer barbecue than to a rally born out of deep concerns about the country's future. It was difficult, indeed, to remember that this was serious business, and not get too caught up in the carnival aspect.

Turkey is in a difficult spot these days. The current ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Erdoğan, is religiously conservative, and there has been much outrage amongst the more 'progressive' Turks that Erdoğan's wife wears a headscarf. Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic and adamant secularist, was a self-professed hater of religion and its influence on people and progress. He would probably have done the proverbial grave-roll if he knew what was going on in the upper echelons of government these days. But Erdoğan in his role of PM has in fact accomplished some positive things for Turkey -- perhaps more than any recent PM -- and has helped bring an unaccustomed level of stability and prosperity to the country. However, he has also made some attempts to push his religious agenda, including attempts to restrict alcohol sales and consumption and lifting the ban on headscarves for government employees. These moves, combined with Erdoğan's shadowy past in political Islam, have alarmed the secular populace and aroused suspicions that this is but the tip of the iceberg -- that Erdoğan and his AK Party have much more in mind.

Ahmed Necdet Sezer is Turkey's acting president. A secular kind of guy, a jurist and a former professor of constitutional law, Sezer is relatively well-liked by the 'liberal establishment' -- but he is nearing the end of his 7-year term. The election of a new president was scheduled to go forward last April, but all manner of havoc has broken loose since then, and as yet no president has been elected. In Turkey the president is largely a figurehead (like the Queen of England), yet is still invested with considerable power, both legal and symbolic. In fact, as a representative of the national identity, the president is more significant than the PM. But interestingly, although the president is effectively a representative of the people as a body, it is not the people who elect him, but the Parliament. Currently the Parliament is dominated by AKP members; therefore the eventual election of an AKP candidate to the presidency seemed inevitable. When it began to be whispered about that Erdoğan would be the AKP's presidential candidate, there was uproar in the country. Indignation, fear and anger were expressed: how could a conservative man with roots in political Islam and a wife in a headscarf possibly be allowed to become the symbol of the secular, westward-leaning Turkey that Atatürk and his followers fought so hard to establish? Impossible. There was enormous outcry, a massive protest rally in Ankara, and finally after much hullabaloo Erdoğan announced that he was bowing to popular pressure and would not run for president after all. The AKP then proffered their second- choice candidate, Abdullah Gül. He proved to be a somewhat more acceptable choice, but still suspect with his own history of forays into political Islam. Nonetheless, election day came and Mr. Gül was the AKP's man. The petulant opposition party's members of Parliament, however, boycotted the elections -- resulting in a lack of the necessary quorum, and hence a stalemate. No new president was elected. Another try produced the same result. There was unhappiness on the part of the people about the accuracy of their parliamentary representation -- after all, MPs serve a five-year term, and we find ourselves currently at the end of that term. How effectively did MPs elected five years ago represent the Turkey of today? In the end, the way the stalemate was resolved gave the people more than they bargained for: the Parliament not only voted to move up the date of the parliamentary elections from November to July (if the people were so convinced that the current Parliament did not represent their interests, this was the only sensible thing to do), but it also passed a constitutional amendment whereby the people will now elect the president directly.

the most enormous flag I've ever seenThere is more to the story. During the uproar over Erdoğan's potential candidacy, the commander of the Turkish armed forces warned the AKP that what they were doing (i.e., subtlely pushing their religious agenda) was a potential threat to democracy and secularism. This remark was interpreted by some, particularly in the foreign press, as a threat that the military would intervene should the elected candidate prove too Islamic for its taste.
Despite the young age of the Turkish republic (84 years old this year), there is a rather long history of military meddling politics. Several times when a ruling party has been deemed a 'threat to democracy' (as interpreted by the military) they have been removed militarily. This gives rise to mixed feelings of the Turkish people about the military -- on the one hand, they love and revere it as the saviour of secularism and democracy. On the other hand, a government selected by the military may be secular, but it's certainly not democratic, and there is growing frustration among many at the feeling that there is no middle ground between military authoritarianism and religious extremism. What they want, simply -- or not so simply, as it seems -- is democracy and secularism. The question is, in a country like Turkey, is it possible to have both?

sour green plums, usually eaten with saltThis was the gnawing, troubling crux of the problem that drew over a million Turks (and at least one American) out into the jackhammer noonday sun last Sunday. We pushed, we sweated, we tried not to poke each other's eyes out with our flag poles. There were wonderful sights -- an old wizened drummer, drumming away while girls wrapped in flags danced provocatively in circles to the beat. Little children in floppy sunhats and flags-cum-shirts. People brandishing witty placards (which took me a long time to understand...getting political puns in Turkish is no easy feat). Scores of boats bobbing just offshore, packed with people in their red and white, observing the spectacle. A giant stage on which presenters, in booming voices, recited the speeches of Atatürk. Patriotic songs. I couldn't see any of it, jammed as I was into the seething mob. It was a challenge not to be gorged by a flag pole, or have your toes trodden on, or be pushed under the heaving, pushing massdancing for secularismes. At some points, it was nearly impossible to move, and your nose was assailed with the scent of shampoo and perfume and sweat and sunblock. The sun grew more merciless, my temper frayed; I stopped caring about democracy, and only wanted to flee to a cool and empty place. After much pushing and grunting, and one frantic moment where my flag slipped to the ground and was promptly trodden on by at least six pairs of feet as my hands frantically scrabbled and pulled at the cloth and tried not to tear it, we finally emerged from the rabble, ducked into a cool underground bar, and discussed the meaning of democracy over icy half-liters of beer. A woman in a grunge-rock bar in Turkey, swilling beer. That, my friends, is one victory for the secularists.

Infidel Izmirians are here, where's Tayyip (Erdogan)? A reference to one conservative politican's reference to the people of Izmir as 'infidels'Turkey is and will remain secular'Take your mother and your party and go to Iran.' A reference to a story about a farmer who tried to approach Erdogan about problems Turkish farmers are facing, and who was rebuffed by Erdogan, who said 'get out of my sight; take your mother and go home.'the Izmir bay


At 4:29 PM, Blogger Hope said...

Aren't the political processes of other countries interesting? (I'm sure they think the same thing about ours!)

When we lived in Italy there were something like 23 different Communist political parties; 70% of the population considered themselves Communist.

But I have to say that it was in no way a represention of what we as American's think of as communism - maybe closer to socialist I guess. The Italians themselves would have been all to quick to mutiny had those 'Communist' parties been anything like what we understand communism to be.

So that begs the question - whose idea of communism is correct?


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