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Municipal Elections in Turkey: Minorities Emerge from Political Isolation

By in Istanbul

The EU charges that minorities in Turkey are still persecuted. But they are growing more politically active with numerous minority candidates on the ballot for this weekend's municipal elections. The country may even get its first Jewish mayor.

It may be the quietest voting district in Istanbul -- no smog, no traffic jams, no police sirens. On the Princes' Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, only horse-drawn carriages are allowed, and those only for tourists. But in the winter even the tourists remain on the mainland, since the weather on the sea is ice-cold. Heavy rain whips over the ferry terminal on Büyükada, the largest of the nine islands.

Yusuf Bahar, 37, businessman and politician, steps out of his speedboat. The friendly, somewhat shy-seeming islander has just given a radio interview in hectic downtown Istanbul. Now he wants to see the citizens in his voting district -- he wants to visit tea houses, shake hands and give out brochures.

Most people here know Bahar already. But Turkey's national media has noticed him recently, too -- and not just because he has a decent chance this Sunday of becoming mayor of the Princes' Islands, as a candidate for the Democratic Party (DP). He also happens to be Jewish. A non-Muslim mayor would be new in Turkish history. "I would be the first," he says.

But he doesn't like to emphasize his background. His local religious community has promised to mention his Judaism only when asked about it. "My name sounds Turkish, I look Turkish, I feel Turkish," he says. "My people have been here for 500 years."

Three (Official) Minorities

Around 20,000 Jews now live on the Bosporus, and long experience has made them cautious. They make up one of three officially-recognized minorities in Turkey -- alongside 60,000 Armenians and 2,500 Greeks. The status of "minority" brings certain privileges, like the right of a given group to set up its own schools and places of worship.

But they still experience discrimination. "After the Republic of Turkey was founded (in 1923), a non-Muslim was barred from even the least important government job," said Ayhan Aktar, at Istanbul's Bilgi University. The reason, he added, was official fear of ethnic diversity. A "true" Turk was a Sunni Muslim who swore allegiance to "Turkishness." Non-Muslims tried not to draw attention to themselves. For decades they simply ducked out of the way.

Progress can be hard to notice. The latest report on Turkey by the European Union mentions "persistent hostility and violence against minorities." But minorities seem to be finding their political feet. In nationwide municipal elections on March 29 some 30 representatives of Turkish minorities are running for mayoral or city council seats -- more than ever before.

One of them is Karun Kovan, an Armenian dentist. He's campaigning in the Princes' Islands, too -- but for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic, conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). "My friends were at a loss when I told them about my decision," he said. "But wasn't it the so-called Islamists who first stood up for minority rights? And why should I vote for Kemalists (the secular Turkish party), when 'Armenian' is like a bad word to them?"

Kovan and many other Turkish Armenians voted for Erdogan in the last election, because they believed he would lead the country into the EU. Etyen Mahçupyan, publisher of the Turkish-Armenian weekly magazine Agos, recently endorsed the AKP again, for the same reason.

'Unspeakably Racist'

But they have little choice. They would hardly vote for the largest opposition party. During the last election, a parliamentarian from the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP) named Canan Aritman tried to smear President Abdullah Gül by saying he was the son of an Armenian mother.

When Gül protested that all his ancestors were Turkish Muslims, Aritman demanded DNA evidence. "Unspeakably racist," is how the Armenian writer Raffi Hermonn described the demand -- though it didn't stop him from joining the CHP himself, and running for city council.

Hermonn, 42, is a large man with stubble and a ponytail. He's one of the freest-thinking members of his district. He has his own explanation for the new visibility of minorities in Turkish public life. "The old Armenian bourgeoisie doesn't exist anymore," he says. "We aren't a threat to the Turkish state, so now it can flirt with us. Armenians in politics -- that's good, isn't it?"

He joined the CHP because he believes their candidate for mayor of Istanbul is one of the party's few liberals. He also thinks the ruling AKP needs competition after seven years in power.

Yusuf Bahar, the man from the Princes' Islands, feels the same way. When it comes to his own political future, at least, he sees Barack Obama as a role model. "Turks should be proud when someone with a minority background can succeed here," he says. "That would be a true test of the democratic process in our country."

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