Could attitudes about a visible tattoo on a woman’s body or tight fitting jeans possibly influence the outcome of a close election? It’s a question which increasingly preoccupies many in Turkey, especially women who’ve fought for equal rights for decades in a male dominated society.
Such concerns have increased dramatically recently as Turkish voters have their first opportunity to directly elect their country’s president on Aug. 10.
For many Turks, especially female voters, Aug. 10 will not just be about choosing a new president. In a very real sense it could become a referendum on what kind of society Turkey is to become. And that reality could have important consequences for all members of an increasingly divided nation with two opposing viewpoints regarding what kind of society Turkey should be.
One favours the kind of society originally imposed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and another which, although not unaware of the economic benefits brought by the secular society established by Ataturk, wants to re-establish the values and role of the Muslim religion within society, including the role of women.
Only in the last few decades did Ataturk’s secular dominated society encounter meaningful opposition, particularly from Muslim based political movements.
However, in 2003, Turkey’s Muslim-based Justice and Development Party was able to form a government led by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He went on to win two further elections, raising growing fears that despite his government’s ostensible commitment to democracy he was determined to undermine the country’s secular nature.
There are growing concerns that under Erdogan’s authoritarian approach to leadership, authentic democracy is increasingly endangered. Some fear that Erdogan’s increased emphasis on observing traditional Muslim religious practices represent real dangers to Ataturk’s system. Some fear the ruling party’s emphasis on stressing the importance of traditional attitudes towards religion and social conduct are undermining the role, even the rights, of Turkish women.
By a sheer pre-election coincidence, comments made July 28 by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc that Turkish women should be more discreet in their conduct, and even avoid laughing out loud, have only reinforced fears that the secular nature of Turkey is increasingly endangered, especially when the front-runner in the crucially important Aug. 10 presidential election is Prime Minister Erdogan himself.
Because of Turkey’s pivotal role in its region and increasing economic importance, plus its political and military clout, what happens on voting day will be watched with considerable interest not just in the region but also far beyond, including in Canada which has had longstanding trade and other links with fellow NATO member Turkey.
While most Western governments have developed relatively good relations with Turkey, Turkey’s commitment to Western democratic principles have not always been in line with Western concepts, including Turkey’s treatment of the country’s non-Turkish minorities, particularly the large Kurdish minority whose rights, including language rights, were not acknowledged.
Western governments were always concerned about the powerful role Turkey’s military elite played within Turkey’s democratic system – overthrowing two democratically elected civilian governments, even executing Turkey’s civilian prime minister, Adnan Menderes.
The U.S. and European governments were always sensitive to Turkey’s shortcomings insofar as its commitment to Western concepts of authentic democracy and respect for the rule of law were concerned. Those concerns have resurfaced under Erdogan’s rule.
Nevertheless, once in power Prime Minister Erdogan presided over a significant economic boom and even dared to challenge the heretofore untouchable military elite, reducing its traditional interference in domestic affairs. Erdogan even had the audacity to have the military elite put on trial for allegedly plotting against his government, previously unthinkable. But in recent years Erdogan’s increasing intolerance of opposition and his threats against any groups questioning his policies have polarized Turkish society.
In addition, Erdogan is now involved in purging many of Turkey’s police and legal officials who allegedly were implicated in disclosing the involvement of Erdogan and other members of his government in illegal payoffs.
The results of Turkey’s presidential election will have a lot to say about whether Turkey’s future is one of democracy and equal rights for women.
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Turkey.