Breaking taboos in the Turkish Parliament

Breaking taboos in the Turkish Parliament

The Turkish Parliament broke one of its biggest taboos on Oct. 31 by welcoming four women wearing headscarves due to their Islamic beliefs.

All four were members of Parliament in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) list. They were elected without their heads covered because women with headscarves were not accepted as candidates by political parties after a major conflict in Parliament back in 1999, when a deputy, Merve Kavakçı, came to the opening session wearing a headscarf. She was denied ground following protests led by former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who claimed the move would violate the secularist principles of the Turkish state.

Lots of things have changed since then in Turkey. The country is now ruled by Erdoğan’s AK Parti, relying on pious-conservative votes since 2002. The staunchly secularist military has received a few blows in major court cases and no longer interferes in politics. Erdoğan has just issued a decree and freed the use of the headscarf for public servants (with the exception of the military, police, prosecutors and judges). Followed by that major step, woman deputies within the AK Parti started to talk about wearing headscarves in parliamentary sessions. It was the pilgrimage season and some of them already covered their hair after visiting the Kaabah in Mecca, uncovering it during their working hours in Parliament.

That demand sparked a debate within the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), as the bastion of secular thought in the country. A minor but loud faction in the party started to pressure its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, to stand against the moves.

The session yesterday, in which the four MPs declared that they would arrive covered, caused the political tension in country to escalate. There were fears that if there was to be a group resistance from the CHP there would be a massive AK Parti reaction to it, which could lead to deeper conflicts and cracks in the Turkish political scene.

It did not happen. The CHP group criticized the AK Parti for being hypocritical, saying they should remember freedoms not only when it is just part of the society, but it was all within the peaceful limits of parliamentary debate. Women deputies from all parties delivered powerful speeches, criticizing the male domination of Turkish politics, but when the historic session - exceeding another threshold for the normalization of political life in Turkey - concluded, it was a relief for everyone interested in the matter.

The Kılıçdaroğlu factor

CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu proved his leadership capacities on such an important and crucial matter with success, perhaps for the first time. With silent maneuvering, he managed to take on the inner-party opposition, who asked him to take a strong stance against the use of headscarves in Parliament, and thus avoided a major conflict and damage to Turkish political life. With this move, Kılıçdaroğlu both avoided antagonism with the party's grassroots and sent positive signals to indeterminate votes as the country approaches the local elections on March 3, 2014.

There was another move by Kılıçdaroğlu on the same day yesterday regarding in-house politics, which also added to his leadership qualities. That was the return of Mustafa Sarıgül, the successful mayor of Istanbul’s Şişli district, back to the CHP as a possible candidate for the Istanbul metropolitan municipality against the AK Parti’s incumbent mayor, Kadir Topbaş. Topbaş is himself considered successful, with poll ratings exceeding those of the AK Parti, according to some surveys, and popular Sarıgül is considered the only name to force his position. Kılıçdaroğlu made the invitation to Sarıgül in Istanbul via the CHP secretary general (not himself) on a day when almost all of the public’s political attention was on Parliament in Ankara. If it was another day, Sarıgül would probably be in many headlines the next day and could overshadow both the CHP and Kılıçdaroğlu and antagonize those in the party who are against Sarigül’s return.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s two silent moves on the same day, without being in sight, helped both the Turkish Parliament and his own party.