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Elif Shafak: What Turkey Urgently Needs Now

5 minute read
Shafak is a leading Turkish novelist and the author of nine novels, most recently The Architect’s Apprentice.

In a University of California, Berkeley study of students from more than 200 countries, aiming to measure the degree to which respondents had found life “unpredictable, uncontrollable and overwhelming,” those coming from Turkey scored among the highest on perceived stress. Had the researchers come to Turkey and talked with the people prior to the parliamentary elections on June 7, however, they would have probably assessed a world record for collective stress—most of which was triggered by politics.

No doubt this was the most stressful Turkish election in recent memory. Many voters felt like they were casting their votes not only to choose who represents them, but also to decide the future of the regime for many decades to come. In no other ballot had so much been at stake! In no other election time had there been this much pressure on the citizens to make fateful decisions. The primary reason for this was no other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who seemed determined to confuse democracy with majoritarianism and to turn the vote into a springboard that would launch him into an all-powerful position. Erdogan’s target was to make his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, obtain the necessary majority in the parliament to change the constitution and thus replace the parliamentarian system with a presidential model. For this purpose he campaigned relentlessly, even though the President has to be neutral and remain at an equal distance from all parties. As to the new system that he wanted to introduce, no one quite knew what would its bounds be, but it was clear it would be closer to the Russian than the American model of presidency.

As a writer, a woman, a democrat, a feminist, I do not want anyone in Turkey to have too much power. Because whoever attains power wants more and then even more power! It is never enough. It was never enough for AKP. Separation of powers was thrust aside, rule of law ignored, media freedoms and freedom of expression endangered, all in order to consolidate power in the hands of the same people, year after year. I am not sure any other party would have behaved any differently had they remained in power for so long. That is why I find separation of powers, free media and the existence of a rich civil society far more important for the sustainability of Turkey’s democracy.

It is one of the biggest ironies of Turkish political history that the Kurds—once belittled by the elites as a “backward culture”—have become the major progressive force in the country. Today many Turkish liberals, democrats, intellectuals, secularists and Kemalists are happy that the Kurds exist. It has been a massive mental shift!

Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has played a crucial role in this sea change. Getting more than 13% of the votes across the country, HDP managed to gain 80 of the 550 seats in parliament.

His charismatic personality and all-inclusive electoral campaign helped him in his endeavor to transform HDP from a regional party into a national one. Instead of using divisive or sectarian talking points, Demirtaş consistently chose an all-embracing language. He talked about the rights of not only Kurds, but Turks, Alevis, Armenians, women and gay people, uniting discontents under the same umbrella. HDP also had the highest percentage of women candidates. The party implements “a one man, one woman co-chair model” in its national, regional and local units. Interestingly, there were supporters of the main opposition party (Republican People’s Party, or CHP) and even the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who voted for Demirtaş because they wished the Kurds would pass the 10% threshold needed for parliamentary representation—a barrier introduced by the army after the 1980 military takeover mostly to limit the Kurds’ entry into the Turkish parliament.

Demirtaş’ positive attitude towards diversity, inclusiveness and democracy is notable. We must hope that he won’t lose these values once he is deeper into the whirl of daily politics—and nor will HDP. It surely will not be an easy road. There are “hawks” inside the Kurdish movement, just like there are hard-liners in MHP, AKP and CHP. But Turkey has suffered enough from hawkish, exclusivist, power-driven masculinity. What we urgently need now is to restore the rule of law and reinforce democratic rights for everyone, equally.

Surrounded by extremisms and undemocratic regimes, Turkey does not exist in an easy region. Despite all its shortcomings, it is remarkable that it has enough experience in democracy and secularism to be able to renew itself through democratic means. There will be a coalition and, before that, a lot of uncertainty. But for now there is visible relief. After months of tension and fighting, people from different walks of life—including many AKP supporters who feel loyal to their party but do not necessarily want to see President Erdogan become even more powerful—are experiencing something strange, something unusual in their bodies: A decrease in the amount of perceived stress.

Read next: The Election Loss for Turkey’s Erdogan Is a Victory for Democracy

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