Saturday, July 14, 2007

Turkish Elections

From the FT in June:

The city where Turkey’s republic lost its way

Published: June 27 2007 01:41 | Last updated: June 27 2007 01:41

If anywhere in Turkey ought to be an opposition stronghold, it is Sivas. This city of 350,000 people on the high Anatolian plateau, 450km east of Ankara, was the base from which Ataturk’s republican revolution spread to the rest of the country nearly 90 years ago. A ­slogan in gold lettering beside a statue of the nation’s founder, just off the main square, says: “The republic began here.”

A month before Turkey’s general election, however, the republic that Ataturk founded seems to be in retreat in this slightly shabby city.

The main opposition Republican People’s party (CHP), which sees itself as the guardian (along with the military) of Ataturk’s republic, was once the strongest political force here. Before 1980, the party won comfortably in Sivas. Now it struggles to be relevant, not only here but also in much of Anatolia.

The gradual shift from the secular left to the religiously conservative right that characterises Turkish politics in recent decades may be more evident in Sivas than anywhere else in Turkey.

Even some of the opposition’s supporters admit that the shift has left the party high and dry. The CHP is a secular, vaguely leftist and overtly statist party in a country of conservative capitalists. That might explain its close links to the military, which has ousted four elected governments in Turkey since 1960.

“The move from left to right is the trend especially in central Anatolia,” says Osman Yildirim, a disillusioned CHP supporter who is president of the Sivas chamber of commerce and industry.

“The left had no solutions for Turkey’s problems and it is seen as distant from religion, and Turkey is a religious country.” Until the party modernises, he says, it will continue its losing streak in former republican bastions such as Sivas.

Malik Ecder Ozdemir, the main CHP candidate in Sivas, sounds equally glum, if a little more defiant. He insists the party will do better in the July 22 election than it did at the last election in 2002, when it captured one of the six seats the city and province of Sivas have in parliament.

The outgoing government of the Justice and Development party (AKP), which has Islamist roots and is the chief beneficiary of the swing to the right, won the other five.

“Sivas is important for the CHP,” Mr Ozdemir says. “If we are weak here we are weak all over Turkey.”

The main factor in shifting the political orientation of Sivas is migration. The city has absorbed migrants from the surrounding provinces, who brought their conservative rural and small-town customs to the city and who tend to be self-employed or to work for their kith and kin. They have gradually outnumbered state employees, who would have voted for the CHP.

“Migration is the problem – it is changing the balances in Turkey,” says Mr Yildirim.

Vahap Sag, a sociologist at Republic University in Sivas, says: “The better-educated and wealthier people are leaving and poorer people are arriving. Sivas is becoming more religious, and that is reflected in voting ­patterns.”

This election has been called four months early to try to resolve a clash between Turkey’s secularists (including the CHP and the military) and the AKP. The AKP wanted to put Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister whose wife wears the Muslim headscarf and who has past links with Turkey’s Islamist movement, into the president’s job.

That sparked a constitutional crisis. The CHP accuses the government of trying to undermine secularism, while the AKP insists it had a democratic mandate to appoint Mr Gul.

The two visions of Turkey – one secular, one democratic – are the central issues in this election.

Whether the CHP can regain prominence in its former stronghold poses an organisational and political challenge. One factor in its favour in Sivas is that Abdullatif Sener, the leading MP for the city who was a senior and respected moderate in the outgoing government, has not sought re-election. This may eat into the AKP’s support.

Mr Ozdemir agrees that Mr Sener’s withdrawal is a bonus. But he paints a much starker picture of what is at stake in this election.

“Turkey is changing,” he says, “but it is not changing for the better. People ask me, ‘Don’t you have any other policies besides secularism and protecting Ataturk’s principles?’

“Now, I think, people accept that those principles are under threat. This is the most important election in Turkey’s history.”

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