As every writer, journalist or poet knows only too well, words are not to be taken lightly. Especially so in Turkey. Words can get you sued and put on trial, demonised by the government and their henchmen in the media, sent to prison or into exile. Critical-minded individuals can be branded as “traitors” overnight – just because of an article or a poem or even a tweet.
The surprise outcome of last Sunday’s Turkish elections, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) lost its majority, leading to the resignation of prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has sent shockwaves around Europe and the Middle East. But to understand the political situation in a land as complicated as Turkey requires one to look not only at what is being said, but also at the deliberate silences. Here’s a glossary of key words:
Siyaset, “politics”. In English, politics comes from polis, the Greek for city-state. Not so siyaset, an Arabic word that shares the same root as seyis, “horse tamer”: doing politics is often likened to taming wild horses. It is regarded as a dangerous, dirty task that only the most daring can manage. There is a second meaning of the word, however, which was widely used during the Ottoman Empire: it means being condemned to death by the state. Should the sultan dislike someone’s attitude, he would call his executioner and order him to carry out siyaset. Afterwards the executioner would wash his hands in a fountain inside the palace, aptly named the “fountain of politics”. Given this grim etymology, it is no wonder politics is still seen as a battlefield in Turkey.
Baba, “father”. A key word for anyone who wants to understand Turkish politics and society. In the family, at school, in football or at work, we are conditioned to have a baba in charge. Turkey is a highly patriarchal society, often sexist and homophobic. The baba cult is directly reflected in the architecture of the state machinery. The state is seen as a stern father, whereas the nation is regarded as a compassionate mother. Mustafa Kemal, the founder of Turkey is called Atatürk – meaning “father of Turks”. Until Sunday’s defeat, president Erdoğan had managed to accrue so much power precisely because he had made the most of the baba cult. During the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when thousands of Turks took to the streets in the name of freedom and democracy, he tried to calm down the situation by assuming the role of a forbidding baba: “Don’t worry. I brought the people responsible into my office and yelled at them,” he said. “I made them cry.” Scolding had become a governing style.
But after Sunday, the authority of the baba is being challenged for the first time in decades.
Koalisyon, “coalition”. For the first time in decades, Turkey will now be ruled by a koalisyon – a word with negative connotations for many Turks. Between 1971 and 1980, Turkey was ruled by as many as 10 different coalitions, none of which managed to bring stability. These years of political violence and economic turmoil peaked with a military coup in 1980. The military regime brought stability, but it came at the expense of huge human rights violations and anti-democratic measures. General Evren, the leader of the coup who took over as president, drilled into the nation’s consciousness that coalitions were the primary reason for the previous turmoil.
In the Turkish psyche, coalitions have come to be identified with chaos. Years later, Erdoğan’s AKP would benefit enormously from this social conditioning, warning that if the people did not vote for them there would be mayhem once again. This history of systematic scaremongering makes it even more remarkable that voters chose a coalition over Erdoğan’s absolutist power.
Kürtler, “kurds”. Undoubtedly the main actors in the transformation that Turkey is currently undergoing. For a long time, Turkish ultranationalists argued there was no such thing as a distinct Kurdish ethnicity at all. The word, they said, was actually derivative of “kart-kurt”, the crunching sound the boots of the people in the south-east made on hard snow. Over time, they eventually accepted that the Kurds existed, but kept regarding Kurdish language and culture as “primitive and backward”.
It is therefore one of the greatest ironies of Turkish politics that the Kurds have now become a source of hope for Turkish liberals, secularists and intellectuals. The Peoples’ Democratic party, a leftwing party with Kurdish roots who on Sunday managed to leap across the 10% barrier for the first time, has been extremely welcoming of minorities. For the first time, the Turkish parliament has welcomed Armenian, Yazidi and Roma MPs, as well as an openly gay MP. The number of women in the parliament has risen significantly. HDP is the only party that implements a gender quota and practises a co-chair policy of one man, one woman.
Mazlum, “sufferer”. Erdoğan’s AKP has for a long time presented itself as the voice of those suppressed and marginalised by the metropolitan elite. In its first years in power, this helped them gain sympathy from liberals and intellectuals. For example, they championed the rights of headscarved women, who had previously been barred from college education.
What the AKP’s party leaders didn’t notice was that over the course of their time in power, they stopped being mazlum. Instead, they were creating new sufferers: cartoonists prosecuted for their work, journalists sacked or sued because of their views, Alevis who were denied equal status, Kurds who were denied the right to be educated in their mother tongue, gays denied equal citizenship, Christian minorities discriminated against, secularists, youth and women concerned about the loss of their freedoms in the face of growing Islamisation. A diverse mass of people felt threatened by increasing authoritarianism of the AKP.
Demokrasi, “democracy”. A sociological shift is taking place in Turkey. The Turkish left is revising its biased approach towards the Kurds. The Kurds are transforming themselves from a nationalist into a more inclusive social movement. Women are becoming more politicised, having realised they have more to lose than men. A rise in gender violence, as well as the AKP’s patriarchal diktats – that women should focus on motherhood, bear three children, preferably five, and not laugh out loud in the public spaces – have made Turkish women understand how quickly their rights could be seized back if they do not speak up.
The young are changing, having seen their country drifting away from Europe and the rule of law. Minorities are changing, conscious that in a region hostile to diversity they must get involved in politics to fight for their basic rights. Expat Turks are changing, worried about the negative perception of Turkey abroad. The one thing that has not changed is the AKP. The party still has a strong electoral base but it has to do a lot of soul-searching. Once a spearhead of reform and social transformation, it has become an inward-looking juggernaut, consumed by paranoia, distrust and conspiracy theories.
In the aftermath of the elections, a rare sense of relief and hope can be felt across the country. The one word in the glossary that Turkey urgently needs to restore next is our badly bruised demokrasi.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist. She was born in Strasbourg in 1971 and is the author of 12 books, including The Forty Rules of Love and her latest novel Honour. She writes in both English and Turkish, and divides her time between London and Istanbul.