Turkey’s elections and gender politics

Despite strong subscription to AKP’s conservative agenda, there may be hope for women and LGBT rights in Turkey.

Increasing women's participation in politics is seen as an important step in addressing gender-based inequality, violence and discrimination in Turkey, writes Goksel [AFP]

In a statement assessing the results of the local elections in Turkey held on March 30, Selahattin Demirtas, BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) co-chair said: “Women are the only winners.”

In reality, only 37 of the 1,395 mayors elected are women, and much of this “progress” is due to BDP itself – which got only 4.2 percent of the vote nationwide, but won by a landslide in the Kurdish provinces of Southeast Anatolia (23 of the 37 mayors that were elected are from BDP, seven are from CHP, six are from AKP, and one is from MHP).

KADER, a leading women’s organisation, deemed the elections a “victory for men, once again“, noting that women have been running in local elections since 1930. Increasing the level of women’s participation in politics is widely seen as an important step in addressing the still significant gender-based inequality, violence and discrimination in Turkey. Local politics is arguably the country’s weakest link as such.

Overall, the results of the March 30 local elections are hardly reason to celebrate. However, the number of female mayors did rise by 30 percent from the last elections. Moreover, it is the first time that women will be running metropolitan municipalities – three in fact: Diyarbakir, Gaziantep and Aydin.

It is the first time there will be women running metropolitan municipalities – three in fact: Diyarbakir, Gaziantep and Aydin. There is also refreshing diversity among the new female mayors.

There is also refreshing diversity among the new women mayors. For example, the youngest female mayor to date ( 25-years-old) will run a district of Diyarbakir, a 27-year-old woman who ran in a district of Sirnak received a record 83 percent of the vote. For the first time there will be headscarved mayors in seven districts – most in the Southeast.

While noting that it is hardly a consolation in the big picture, feminist activist Selen Lermioglu Yilmaz said in a personal interview that we have seen small victories in pockets of the country – such as the hybrid (in terms of conservatism) Beylikduzu district of Istanbul, where four of the 10 neighbourhoods will now be run by women “headmen”. Additionally, there are facets beyond the electoral lists that reflect women’s rising activism. For example, women were in the forefront of volunteering for “Oy ve Otesi” – a citizen’s initiative that monitored the elections.

The LGBT angle

Less discussed is the LGBT angle, which though ridden with disappointment, took a step forward with the elections. Ten LGBT activists put their candidacy forth for nomination as members of municipal councils from HDP (People’s Democratic Congress, sister party of BDP) and CHP (Republican People’s Party), the only two parties welcoming LGBT candidates. Because of the low overall votes received by HDP in the elections, the only elected LGBT activist was Sedef Cakmak, who will serve as a CHP municipal councilmember in Istanbul’s Besiktas district.

Since the first official registration of an NGO explicitly focused on LGBT rights in 2005, Turkey’s LGBT community has expanded to over 10 dedicated NGOs nationwide, and has significantly professionalised its efforts. LGBT mobilisation was largely invisible to the general public until their organised presence in the Gezi Park resistance in May 2013, when the LGBT community virtually “came out of the closet”. Arguably, this experience, along with the embracement of LGBT rights causes by parliamentarians of the main opposition party CHP and the Kurdish BDP, injected self-confidence, and motivated the LGBT community.

The Association for Social Policies, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation (SPOD), an Istanbul-based NGO which has been active since 2011 in training lawyers and medical professionals about LGBT rights, and advocating for anti-discrimination legislation on a national level, established a platform in July 2013 to formulate the demands of the LGBT community from municipalities. They also encouraged and supported openly gay and transvestite candidates. Over the past 20 years of LGBT activism in Turkey, this was the first time the LGBT community engaged directly in mainstream politics. Prior to the elections, with the initiative of SPOD, a number of CHP and HDP candidates signed a protocol committing to take LGBT rights and anti-discrimination policies into consideration in their municipal work.

In the past few years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has incrementally stepped up its propagation of a conservative agenda, with a focus on protecting traditional-family-based lifestyles, values, and morals. From interfering in the co-ed living arrangements of students to depicting homosexuality as a sickness, representatives of the ruling party have provided ample reasons for concern for segments of the society that prioritise individual choice over the traditional gender norms of the country. Although big cities are polarised, particularly starkly on these grounds, having secured 45 percent of the countrywide vote in the local elections can be seen as a strong subscription to AKP’s conservative agenda.

Looking at the election results on a macro level and listening to the rhetoric of the victors, it is clear that the social conservative class and patriarchal conceptions dominate the political domain as before, however there are glimmers of hope to be found in unlikely places.

Diba Nigar Goksel is editor in chief at Turkish Policy Quarterly. She writes mainly on Turkish foreign policy in the neighborhood, Turkey-EU relations, the Caucasus, democratisation and gender rights.