Hope for Democracy A Personal View of the Turkish Elections
Growing up, I was never particularly interested in Turkish politics. But Gezi Park changed my view of the country of my forefathers. Last Sunday's election made me proud.
It's shortly before midnight and we are wandering through a warm, Berlin night, heading to our favorite haunt, Ahmet's bar, for one last drink. When we get there, the security gate is already down, but we can see Ahmet through the window. He is staring into his computer, which he normally uses to flood his bar with melancholy music. But now, you can only hear yelling. Ahmet is watching the livestream of a Turkish politics show. He lets us in and pours us vodka, and we all sit together to watch the Turkish lawmakers on the show. They are sitting 2,000 kilometers away from us in an Ankara television studio, and they have been arguing for hours. The Turkish election campaign, no different than the ones that have come before, is in full-swing.
Ahmet is in his mid-50s -- and his Berlin bar, in recent weeks, seems to have transformed into a kind of campaign headquarters for the HDP. The HDP is the People's Democratic Party, a pro-Kurd party in Turkey and one that grew, in recent months, to become the party of those opposed to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It has become a kind of Turkish alternative to Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). Ahmet sees himself as a representative of the party in Germany. He tells me: You have to vote for HDP. I reply: "Ahmet, I am not eligible to vote, I only have German citizenship." Ahmet answers: "Then tell your father that he should vote for HDP."
Early in the morning, I climb into a taxi. The driver is Turkish and he asks me: Did you vote? I'm not eligible, I say once again. It has become something of a mantra in the last several weeks. And here, in this taxi, I realize that it is unpleasant for me, that I almost want to apologize, because I can't take part in this election that is so important for Turks. I almost want to tell the taxi driver that it doesn't matter, that we live here -- the driver in Berlin, me in Hamburg. But I say nothing. He talks, though, saying that he voted for the first time ever -- not because he is so interested in Turkey, but because it could contribute to Erdogan's party losing its majority.
The vote he cast was also, in some small way, a vote for the young men and women who took part in the Gezi protests in Istanbul, a vote against forgetting those who were killed and a vote for the victims of the attacks that accompanied the Turkish campaign in recent weeks. And he voted so that he finally doesn't have to explain to Germans anymore what is wrong in this country that they call his homeland -- a country that is once again so far removed from democracy.
Willingly or Unwillingly
It is not as if all of these questions are foreign to me. I find myself constantly involved in discussions about Turkey, about the "Sultan of the Bosporus," about locked-up journalists and the suppressed genocide of the Armenians, about women who aren't supposed to laugh in public. About the cockroaches in Erdogan's old palace that are the reason he moved into a new palace with 1,150 rooms. They are important questions, but the country they are about is far away. I imagine many Turks in Germany have found themselves in the middle of such discussions recently, either willingly or unwillingly.
Voter turnout among Turks in Germany was four times higher this year than it was for the presidential election last summer. This year, 54 percent of their votes went to Erdogan's AKP with 17.5 percent going to his opponents from the HDP.
For many Germans, such a high turnout is yet more proof that Turks in the country refuse to integrate, that they are more interested in a far-away country than they are in city-state elections in Bremen, for example.
I believe, though, that those in Hamburg, Berlin or Cologne who gave their vote to Erdogan aren't necessarily thinking about Turkey so much as they are thinking about themselves. Perhaps because they live in a country in which the only political activists they have encountered over the last several decades are those in the mosque around the corner. I don't actually think they are casting their ballots for AKP. I think they are voting for Erdogan, their president, whose position wasn't actually up for election this time around. They vote for him because he sends advisors to Germany when Turks die in a house fire in Ludwigshafen. Because he promises Turks to get to the bottom of the neo-Nazi NSU terror cell. Because he demands from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, when she comes to Ankara for a visit, that she introduce dual citizenship for Turks living in Germany. Because he never forgets Turks in Germany. With 1.4 million registered voters, after all, they make up Turkey's fourth largest electoral district.
And then there are the others who once came to Germany as political refugees because, as left-wing extremists, they were persecuted at home and, once they left, were prevented from returning for decades. They vote because they have finally found cause for hope once again -- in the form of HDP, a strong leftist party that intends to introduce into Turkish parliament those values for which they once fought. Finally, those that were born here are also voting, for a faraway homeland that doesn't belong to them but for which they are always being held to account. Many of them have only recently become interested in Turkish politics.
Not Really Interested
In my childhood, Turkish politics existed only on television and only on Sundays. It was that show, I've forgotten what it was called, with the brown background on public television. My parents would watch for the hour every week that it broadcast news from our old homeland into our Hamburg living room. The images that I remember are those of parliamentarians fighting. And I remember my father explaining that, yes, it's not good that they fight, but politics in Turkey is just different than in Germany. But we children weren't really that interested.
That's how I grew up, and it was very comfortable. But something has changed, for me too. Ever since the Gezi Park protests, I have a different view of the goings-on in the country of my summer vacations and a different view of those who run things.
It was the summer of 2013. I was standing in Gezi Park in Istanbul and saw the water cannon, the clouds of pepper spray and the exploding Molotov cocktails. I saw a Turkey in which Kurds and Turks were fighting together. I saw, in the heart of Istanbul, young people in makeshift tent-mosques. They waved Kurdish flags alongside Turkish nationalists. For weeks, they slept next to each other in sleeping bags, cooked together and raised their voices in favor of pluralism and democracy -- and against Erdogan, whom they referred to as a dictator. They were young people, roughly my age, who were fighting for their civil rights. They were fighting for something that I grew up with -- something that I never saw as being particularly special.
I carried a sense of pride back home with me. After that summer, when I spoke about Turks and Turkey, it felt different, more mature. The focus was no longer on fights in parliament, circumcision or honor killings. I could now talk about demonstrators who threw nutmeg at the police and who danced tango in the face of water cannon. I could tell them of protesters who screamed their names into the cameras while being arrested out of fear that they might disappear behind the prison walls, into this state apparatus that swallows people whole while at the same time showing the world the proud face of a man who calls himself a democrat: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In last Sunday's elections, his AKP lost its absolute majority -- and Erdogan has said nothing about his opponents since then. It almost seems as though he has lost his voice -- the same voice he had always used to crush the embers of resistance as though he were stubbing out a cigarette butt. Last Sunday's election result is the return of Gezi Park. What makes it significant is that it shows that freedom is not dispersing like so much smoke, but is bashing in the concrete walls of parliament.
Haven't Given Up
For the second time in my life, I have understood that the Turks who live in Turkey are different from the Turks that I imagine from my home in Hamburg. They live in a state where public prosecutors disappear from their posts as soon as they begin poking around in the corruption affairs surrounding their president. They live in a state where women are guilty of their own rapes if they wear skirts that are too short. In a state where editors-in-chief are arrested when they write the truth. A state that ranks 149th when it comes to press freedoms.
They live with a president who wants to change the constitution when it stands in his way and to abolish holidays if they commemorate state founder Atatürk. A president who did nothing when the arms and legs of HDP supporters were torn away in an explosion -- detonated by who knows which political camp -- during a campaign event two days before the election. These Turks also went to their polling station to use their voice to demand their freedom back. They showed that they haven't given up.
Erdogan lost many of his voters in eastern Turkey, in particular. There, pious old Kurds -- a group that helped elect Erdogan to parliament in the first place and paved the way for his political rise -- turned away from him. They too are angry. Perhaps not because Erdogan would like each woman to have at least three children, but because he allows fighters from Islamic State to be treated in their hospitals on the border to Syria. Because he provides weapons to jihadists from Europe and allows them to travel freely through the country and through their villages. And because he recently did nothing to help the city of Kobani as it fought for its very survival against the Islamists. As the bombs fell and the smoke rose, Erdogan's tanks stood idly by on the surrounding hills and his soldiers simply watched.
Hope for Democracy
For the Kurds, it's not about an appropriate Turkish military response, or about what was right or wrong, or about a NATO deal or Erdogan's foreign policy aims. It's about their feeling that Erdogan turned his back on them, the Kurds who remained loyal to him and who believed him when he began the process of creating peace with them. Since then, though, he has allowed that dialogue to fall silent -- and the Kurds were also among those who punished him on Sunday.
"The sultanate has come to an end," my father says. The newspaper op-eds are just as stark. They say that his time has come to an end and that he is now a "tribune without followers." Everywhere, one sees processions of automobiles and people happily drinking raki. But I'm not quite so sanguine; I find myself wondering what happens next. No serious party wants to form a governing coalition with the AKP, which means that new elections will likely be called. And new elections could mean that the AKP regains its absolute majority, because the party is at least a guarantor of security. And if new elections are not held? Then the AKP would have to form a coalition with the right-wing extremists from the nationalist movement MHP. Might the new Turk be an Islamo-fascist?
"We are rid of him, you just don't get it yet," says my friend Ümit from Istanbul. These days, I am constantly receiving messages from Ümit and he is becoming more euphoric by the day. Not all that long ago, he wanted to leave Turkey, as did many other friends of mine: We have to get out, we don't have a future here, they would constantly write to me. Computer scientists, actors, engineers and architects, they tried to find jobs in Paris, London or even Chemnitz.
Now they write that it finally feels good again to be in Turkey. Some of them come from nationalist homes, and even they are writing again, saying they are happy to work with the Kurds and the leftists as long as it means they are done with Erdogan. They want to stay. They want to fight. It feels good again, for me too. Because hope has finally returned. Hope for democracy.