After Republic day in 2002, the main topic of conversation among my students was the upcoming Turkish elections. It was impossible to ignore them because every other day some party leader came to Kayseri to mount the hustings and win votes. Posters appeared everywhere advertising rallies in Cumhuriyet Meydan, the main square, or in one of the many indoor sporting arenas in the suburbs. The bus stops kept being moved because the council closed off the main streets whenever a rally was held. As a result I often had to walk for miles to get the bus back from town. This made me grumpy but my students were very excited as it was the first time many of them were old enough to vote in the Turkish elections, and they took the matter very seriously. It was unclear just who would win, but Ecevit, the then prime minister, was clearly finished. He was in poor health and at over 60 years old, nearly dead as far as the teenagers in my class were concerned.
Nearly all the parties running in the Turkish elections had names that easily reduced to three letter acronyms, like CHP, DYP, MHP, AKP and so on. There were so many that I could never remember what they all stood for, let alone follow the ins and outs of each individual party line. What I did know was that one party leader would either be jailed for acting against the constitution by heading a party that claimed Islam as its political guide, or he would be allowed to run for prime minister. Another politician bought airtime through the three TV stations his family owned. The government regularly punished him by shutting down his TV stations for up to five days at a time, using a family morals clause. The way it worked was the TV channel would show a program that some time later would be deemed inappropriate. The actual shut down of the station itself, however, usually occurred months after the wicked event. This same consortium owned the rights to air Champions League Football. If, as was sometimes the case, the black out coincided with a match, people were more likely to support the offender, rather than the government trying to protect their moral well being. Despite his sins, this politician was still allowed to run for office. Another candidate, a former prime minister, was running again on the promise that if her party was elected, every Turkish citizen would get two keys. One for their own home and one for their own car. Her previous stay in office had been cut short by stories of Mafia connections and the existence of a mysterious Mercedes with lots of cash in the boot.
One day, out of curiosity, I asked my students who they thought would win.
“Teacher, they are all bad. It doesn’t matter who wins,” was the general consensus.
“Isn’t it important to vote?” I asked. Just to be certain I added, “Don’t you want to choose?”
“Yes” they replied, “but we can’t.”
I was puzzled because the week before they’d told me how necessary it was to vote and that they all wanted to. Hoping to clarify the situation I asked, “Why can’t you vote?” and they responded with, “Because we’re not there”.
Trying to discuss politics with pre-intermediate English language students mightn’t have been the greatest idea but it was the first topic in which they had shown a genuine interest. I decided to persist and try to tease out some more answers that might better explain what they meant. I started to pose the most obvious questions, as simply as I could. I started with,
“Are you old enough to vote?” Many hands were raised and many voices called out, “Yes, I am.”
“Are you registered to vote?” I queried. This only brought blank looks so I tried again. “In my country, you must go to an office.” I paused and looked around the classroom to check everyone had understood me. Seeing they had, I continued. “You must give your name, before the election. Then you can vote. Have you done this?”
“Yes teacher, I have.” As it seemed most of them were old enough to vote and had registered I was at a loss as to why they were insisting they couldn’t vote. While I thought over possible causes, the students talked amongst themselves in Turkish. Just when I thought we couldn’t go any further they came to a decision. One boy, Ferhat, was appointed as a spokesperson to explain the situation. I was really surprised and pleased. Generally it was difficult to get them to speak. After years of rote learning and having any attempts at initiative crushed in their formative years, they were usually too afraid of making mistakes to venture anything new. While Ferhat used the English they best understood, I wrote the English words he was talking about on the board.
“When you go to the office” he told me, “it is in your, your, sorry teacher, your memleket.”
“OK, when you go to the office, to register, it is in your birth place.”
“Yes, when you register, it is in your birth place,” repeated Ferhat.
“So you have all done this,” I confirmed.
“Yes teacher,” they chorused. Ferhat continued, “When you elect, election, seçim…”. He gave up and looked at me for help so I wrote the word ‘vote’ on the board.
“Yes, yes, when you vote, you be in birthplace!”
Wanting to check what I understood, I said, “You mean, when the election comes, you must be in your birthplace, the place where you are registered, to vote?” The students were deafening in their affirmation and elated that I had understood them.
I was amazed when I realised what they had told me. Most of the teenagers at our university were miles away from their hometowns and generally very poor. Some of them could only afford to eat two meals a day at best, so I couldn’t see how they could afford to travel home to cast their votes. I doubted this situation was only limited to our university. In addition, I knew quite a few married couples living separately because they had to work in different cities. Sometimes this was a career move, but more often the person had no choice. Either they worked for the government and had to go where they were sent, or they had lower skills and qualifications and moved where work was available. I figured a huge number of people must be stationed away from home and thus excluded from voting. It didn’t make much sense given it was obligatory to vote and you were fined if you didn’t. Yet when I asked my students in as many ways as possible to be certain they understood me, they were insistent absentee voting wasn’t possible.
I used to watch domestic news every night, a Turkish-English dictionary by my side. Although it was hard work, I learnt a lot of useful things. Even if my students were wrong, and postal and absentee voting were possible, there were other factors that would affect the outcome of the elections. In some remote villages in the East and South Eastern parts of Turkey not everybody showed up on the population lists. Children born to second, third and fourth wives couldn’t be registered because their parents had only been married by an imam, a religious leader. As their marriage wasn’t official their children didn’t officially exist. Even children born to legal unions weren’t always registered immediately, or at all. It wasn’t automatically accepted as mandatory and could in fact be useful in certain situations. One example was the obligatory military service, which stood at two years for boys without a higher education. Naturally two years was a long time, and in remote farming areas the loss of a labourer could be hard to bear. When the military police came looking for a boy who had failed to show up on his conscription date, an underage young brother could be presented as the person being sought. It was clear back then there was no guarantee as to the accuracy of the population records and therefore of the election rolls.
My students were adamant about their doubts as to whether the outcome of the election would really represent the will of the people. Young as they were, they greatly valued the concepts of democracy, freedom of speech and respect for others, and wanted to see them practised in their everyday reality.
*Please note this story does not claim to accurately describe the process of casting votes in Turkey elections now. It merely describes what I was told at the time. For a better overview of modern Turkish history and politics I can highly recommend Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer