In the tea gardens beneath the minarets of the Aya Sofia church\mosque\now museum, the quiet was shattered by a sort of combination squawk\siren that had me jumping out of my International Herald-Tribune. Round the corner came a loudspeaker festooned red-and-white van with a large portrait — was it Blakey from On The Buses?, anyway some grim mustachioed type — on the side.

Whatever the van — representative of one of Turkey’s nationalist parties — was saying it was pretty angry about it, but no less angry than the rival Demokrat Party van that was coming from the other direction. And then, the call to mid-morning prayers started up.

Turkey is in the grip of election fever at the moment, heading into the 22 July poll designed to resolve a constitutional impasse created by its secular constitution. The ruling moderate Islamic party AKP wanted to elect Abdullah Gul — their foreign minister and a fairly devout Muslim — to the presidency. This was formally blocked by the constitutional court and informally by the military which started making pigeon noises (coup… coup… coup).

The AKP is now shooting for a two-thirds majority in parliament which would allow it to override the ban on selecting Gul. Despite a multi-member electorate system and a voter base of only 34% it has a good chance of getting it. How?

The answer lies in Turkey’s dodgy electoral fix, whereby any party that wants seats in parliament must achieve a 10% aggregate vote across the country. If it fails — even if it got 90% of the vote in a 10-member electoral region — it gets no seats, and its votes are distributed to the other parties proportionate to their vote. Thus your vote can be distributed to a party you abhor — a powerful incentive to vote for a party guaranteed to exceed the 10% threshold.

The ostensible reason for the rule is to deliver strong majorities and decisive government. The real effect is that no one is fooled into thinking the government has a genuine mandate. And the real purpose of the rule is to disenfranchise Kurdish parties, which can get 70% of the vote in the south-east, but virtually nothing anywhere else.

Turkey is held up as an example of a free Islamic democracy by various dimwits, such as Pamela Bone, who use it as a stick to beat the rest of the Islamic world with. To believe this takes a lot of ignorance. The place has had three military coups — in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

In 1960, the elected PM and several of his ministers were hanged, and there were more than 50 political executions and thousands of jailings in 1980. The military shadow determines the limits of freedom, even with a ballot box. The Islam-haters who believe that “liberal democracy” is a tautology, fail to recognise a basic principle of politics — that it is possible to have an illiberal democracy, whereby the popular vote is used to crush the liberal rights of a minority. It’s no longer illegal to give your kid a Kurdish name or talk Kurdish in the street, but type “PKK” into Google in any internet cafe and a very visible website blocker will come up on the screen.

And, of course, there are still a series of petty Ataturk-era restrictions on dress. Though the streets abound with every style of female attire from Britney-Spears LA-ho-alikes to the full niqab, official Turkey still bans the headscarf (it was partly the fact that Gul’s wife wore one that made him beyond the pale). Last week, dozens of girls in the more devout central Anatolia region were banned from sitting their final exams because they were wearing a headscarf — not even a veil.

That’s democracy and freedom in the West’s official good Muslim state, which I must say is also a fantastic easygoing place, full of douceur de vie, especially compared with the grim soft-1984 CCTV hell of the UK. But remember the old Cold War joke: “Under capitalism man exploits man — under communism it is the reverse”. İn the repressive Middle East some people tell some other people what they can wear — in Turkey, it is the … you’re way ahead of me.

Will there be a fourth coup, should the AKP get the grand slam? People say it’s far less likely than it was. Though, should it occur, there’s no doubt that the İslam-haters will justify it as a sad but necessary move to hold democracy “in trust” until these damn fez-heads (actually the fez is also banned — and Amnesty has taken up the cases of three Tommy Cooper impersonators) can get it right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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