Life

Turkey’s 10 percent election threshold might hamper gay rights

Thursday, June 4, 2015
With only 3 days to go before the Turkish parliamentary elections, the country’s 10% election threshold -the highest in Europe- might tip the balance against candidates in favour of gay rights. 
 
Photo: Ecem Morkoyun / This year's spring festival "Newroz" in Diyarbakir organised by the HDP
 
Although the Turkish politics is full of disputes over corruption, freedom of press, minimum wage and national security before the June 7 general elections, one question remains ahead of any other discussion: Will the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) pass the 10% election threshold?
 
Biggest threshold for political representation
 
The high threshold is one of the undemocratic results of the infamous 1980 military coup. According to official reports, the election threshold was meant to block the representation of regional parties, which later prevented Kurdish politicians from being part of the parliament in 1990s. 
 
In Turkey, Kurdish people’s claim for political representation dates back to 1990 when the People’s Labour Party (HEP) was formed. After the closure of 7 different Kurdish parties, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) had 36 PMs in the parliament which ran in the 2011 elections with independent candidates. 
 
What makes the election threshold so central this time is the HDP’s decision to run in the election as a party rather than independent candidates, which puts the party in an all-or-nothing situation. Whether the HDP pass the threshold has the power to change the composite of the parliament drastically - even decreasing the power of 12-year-old Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. 
 
An HDP demonstration in Istanbul before the last year's local elections
 
Gay rights are instrumentalized against opposition
 
As a political party which aims to empower all oppressed groups in Turkey, the HDP has the most progressive election manifesto regarding gay rights. However, the party is also under fire for “promoting immorality” that the ruling AKP and Islamist newspapers target the HDP for having both a gay activist and a mufti [Islamic scholar] as candidates. 
 
Against Erdogan’s support of luxury spending for the Diyanet [the Presidency of Religious Affairs that only endorses Sunni Islam], HDP Co-Chair Demirtas proposes the establishment of a neutral religious institution, which prompts pro-government critics to call him and his party “atheists” and “same-sex marriage supporters”.
 
President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu
 
A journalist from the Turkish daily Posta claimed on June 1 that AKP MP Mahir Unal asked Demirtas his opinion on same-sex marriage to which he reportedly responded, “I’m not considering it at the moment. I and my wife are very happy. Thank you.” 
 
Another attempt to denigrate the HDP as “not belonging to Turkey” came from Efkan Ala, a candidate for the AKP. Ala said “our Kurdish siblings are religious people” and same-sex marriage, which -according to him- would be the end of humanity, is not accepted by “our morality and our tradition”.
 
Pinkwashing from Turkish government
 
Although the AKP has ignored all calls and parliamentary questions for legal protection based on sexual orientation, it also portrays the growing gay rights activism in Turkey as a proof for the government’s tolerance and guarantee for all sorts of lifestyles. 
 
The AKP brochures brag about Turkey “being a country where a gay pride takes place in Istiklal Street [in Istanbul] during the [Muslims’ holy month of] Ramadan” despite of Prime Minister Davutoglu’s comments on homosexuality bringing destruction for the people of Lot. 
 
The AKP brochure
 
Not just a Kurdish party, not just a gay candidate
 
As the HDP addresses to various social issues and claims to be not just a Kurdish party but “the party of whole Turkey”, the growing support for its alternative politics disturbs the government. In April, Vice Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan made a curious statement about the HDP’s election manifesto: “Kurds are mentioned 8 times and lesbians et cetera [sic] are mentioned 9 times. Is this the Turkish society?” 
 
Very similar to the HDP’s all embracing politics, the party’s out gay candidate, Baris Sulu, is decisive not to be squeezed into gay rights. His election slogan “Baris to the parliament” refers to the ongoing peace-making process between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as “baris" means “peace” in Turkish. 
 
Sulu says the 10% election threshold prevents oppressed groups to be represented in the parliament and, therefore, should be immediately lowered after the elections. Sulu reminded that number of MPs submitting parliamentary questions about gay rights has been very limited so far and added:
 
“It all happened following a long activism of 20 years. As the subjects of this issue, we want to be represented in the parliament. They realised that we are serious, thus some media organisations systematically target us.”
 
Baris Sulu: LGBT rights are whole, cannot be divided
 
“We need protective measures for LGBTIs in Turkey”
 
Even President Erdogan had said that he finds that gays are treated “inhumanely” in the media before his first election in 2002 despite of attacking the HDP’s pro-gay stance now. The Kaos GL Association’s media reports show an increase in positive news about gay rights in newspapers especially after the Gezi Park protests in 2013 where gay activists gained a great deal of visibility all around Turkey, however, Islamist newspapers continue to call gays (you don’t need this word) “perverts, the sinful and the diseased”.
 
Being a direct target of the Islamist daily Yeni Akit, Baris Sulu says such news indicates the need for legal protection based on sexual orientation:
 
“When we demanded a hate crime law [inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity], we were talking about exactly this. They, thankfully, did the crosscheck and showed that we need  protective measures for LGBTIs in this country.”
 
Sulu has been a pioneering example of how political participation in election process can force political parties to show their positions on mostly ignored issues. Sulu will not make it to the parliament unless his party gets all the votes in Eskisehir where Sulu is the last candidate for the HDP. But still, his dedication to continue his campaign encouraged many others to give a more visible support for gay rights.
 
So far, 33 of 57 MPs who signed the LGBTI Rights Pledge by the Istanbul-based LGBTI organisation SPoD LGBTI, are from the HDP. If the party passes the election threshold on Sunday, gay rights will certainly pass a new threshold in the country’s 20-year-old gay activism.       
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