Global Policy Forum

Turkey: Upcoming Parliamentary Vote Highlights


By Yigal Schleifer

July 13, 2007

Nursuna Memecan, a well-known Istanbul businesswoman, recently surprised her friends when it was announced that she would be running in Turkey's July 22 parliamentary elections.

Her friends were even more surprised, some actually shocked, when they found out the secular-minded Memecan would be running on the ticket of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic-rooted party, which, over the last few months, has been facing increasing criticism for its supposed efforts to erode Turkey's secular foundations. Speaking from the terrace of her apartment overlooking the Bosphorus and Istanbul's trendy Beyoglu neighborhood, Memecan says she believes the AKP is a natural fit for her. "They are very open-minded. They are really looking to make Turkey a more democratic state, with greater respect for human rights and women's rights," Memecan says.

It shouldn't be so surprising that the AKP would pick someone like Memecan to be on its slate of candidates. Having her on board can help the party deflect charges that it is anti-secular. Memecan's presence additionally enables the AKP to make a case for something that has become increasingly important in this upcoming election: showing that politics in Turkey – which has the lowest percentage of women in parliament in all of Europe – is not only a man's game. "This election is special because everyone has realized the importance of women," says Aysegul Tuncer Topal, an Istanbul businesswoman who is deputy chair of the city's AKP branch. "If you look at the business world and in other fields, women have started to have a more prominent role in the last 10 years and political parties have started to pay attention to that."

Recent events have also forced Turkey's political parties to pay attention to women. Several mammoth pro-secularism rallies – some drawing well over a million people – were held in cities around Turkey in April and May and women were a vocal and highly-visible part of them. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Also in recent months, the Association for Supporting and Training Women Candidates, a Turkish non-governmental organization known as KA-DER, launched a very successful media campaign featuring famous Turkish women with bushy mustaches drawn on their faces. "Is this what you need to get into parliament?" the campaign's slick ads and billboards ask. The ads may not be far off the mark. Although Turkish women were given the right to vote in 1934, ahead of many other countries in Europe, critics say things have stalled since. The average level of women's representation in the parliament has been 2.2 percent since 1935 and currently stands at a paltry 4.4 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world. It gets worse on the local level, where only 18 of Turkey's 3,234 elected mayors (0.56 percent) are women.

By comparison, 47 percent of Swedish parliamentarians are women while in Bulgaria, Turkey's neighbor to the west, women make up 22 percent of the parliament. "There is a wall," says Nukhet Sirman, an anthropologist at Istanbul's Bogazici University who is active in Turkey's women's movement. "Politics in Turkey is very much a man's game and therefore a woman cannot be a proper actor there. She cannot play the game the way the men do."

In the wake of the large rallies and KA-DER's campaign, several of Turkey's parties scrambled to prop up their female-voter appeal. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and AKP's leader, even promised a woman candidate in each one of Turkey's 81 provinces. But women's organizations expressed mostly disappointment when the parties' candidate lists were announced in early June. Despite Erdogan's promise, AKP fielded only 63 women candidates, representing 11 percent of its total. Women made up only 10 percent of the candidates of the next largest party, the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP).

More troubling to many activists was where the women were placed on the lists. Parties fill their allotted seats in parliament starting at the top of their candidate lists in each voting district and although many parties fielded more women, most of the ones on the AKP's and CHP's lists were at the bottom, making their election to parliament highly unlikely. "We asked before whether it is necessary to be a man to enter parliament. Now we got our answer: yes it is," says Hulya Gulbahar, president of KA-DER. "Part of the political system is terribly undemocratic, since it's the party leader who decides what the candidates' list will look like," says Sirman, the anthropologist. "Women with [doctorates], who have been involved in party politics for years and years, were not accepted as candidates. But when it comes to men, the standards were not as high."

What many Turkish women are now calling for are legal changes that would institute quota system in parliament and other political bodies to insure gender parity. Similar legislation was recently passed in Spain and exists in some 100 countries around the world. The AKP has blocked efforts in parliament to institute gender parity laws and PM Erdogan has frequently expressed his opposition to a quota system. "Although I would like to see a lot of women in parliament, I am against seeing someone on the list just based on their gender," says Tuncer Topsal, the AKP Istanbul deputy chairman. "The main point is to get the best representation for the Turkish republic. To go from four percent representation to 50 percent at this point is unrealistic."

But critics say the current system leaves half of the Turkish population underrepresented and underserved, and needs to be remedied. "Currently, women's issues are not being dealt with properly in parliament," says Gila Benmayor, a columnist with Hurriyet, Turkey's largest daily newspaper. "Once you have a quota in place, you can start dealing with women's issues."




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