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What Does Turkey's General Election Promise for Women?

Post against women homicides in Istanbul. Photo by Nazlı Yırtar.

Rally against women homicides in Istanbul. Photo by Nazlı Yırtar.

As Turkey heads toward a tense general election on June 7, the country’s EU accession negotiations—the process by which Turkey will gain admission to the European Union—hang in the balance. Last month the European Parliament postponed voting on Turkey’s 2014 progress report until June, overrunning the May 21 deadline. Kati Piri, the European Parliament's rapporteur for Turkey, said the delay was due to the lack of time to discuss the amendments, but many believe the decision has more to do with the uncertain political environment in the country ahead of Sunday's vote.

President Erdogan’s conservative AKP (Justice and Development) has ruled the country for the last 13 years as a majority government. The party has won seven consecutive general, local and presidential elections as well as two referendums. At the last general election in 2011, the AKP’s vote share was 46.5%, which secured the party 341 of 550 seats in the parliament. But for the first time since its establishment in 2001, the AKP is under threat of not being able to win enough seats to be able to form a single-party government.

Poll results show that in the upcoming June 7 general elections, the pro-Kurdish HDP has a high possibility of getting slightly more than 10% of the votes, which is the threshold to enter the parliament under the Turkish electoral system. If HDP wins over 10% of votes, they will be able to get around 55 seats and wipe out AKP's majority.*

What is in it for women?

In addition to concerns over media freedom and the judiciary, one key area for both the EU-Turkey accession negotiations and Turkish voters is gender equality.

The AKP era has witnessed a troubling rise in the number of femicides and incidences of routine gender violence. Ankara has also failed to create the entity required for meeting the EU benchmark of providing equal opportunities for women and men.

Where do the political parties contesting the critical vote stand on the question of increasing the social and economic welfare of women? On ensuring the equality of women and men and increasing women’s participation in the workforce? On ensuring female representation in decision-making mechanisms? Their manifestos give us a few ideas:

AKP (Justice and Development Party)

By virtue of being the ruling party for the last 13 years, the AKP's manifesto has a section entitled “what we did”. In the introduction to their manifesto, the AKP, which has a reputation for dividing the nation by gender, notes: “We are in the hearts of all of our nation, women and men”.

Under its Development and Society section the manifesto has a “Women” sub-section whose preamble includes the following statement: “Women are the basis of the family as much as they are the basis of society.” The statement appears to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes of women.

Although the AKP claims female participation in the workforce has increased in recent years under its rule, according to World Bank statistics the rate was 28% in 2010 and 29% in 2011, with no change since then. The rate remains well below the 2013 EU average of 50.8%.

In talking about future plans for gender equality in the coming term, the AKP continues to reference past achievements instead of outlining fresh initiatives. They pledge to adhere to the policies they have adopted to strengthen women individually as well as in society, although these policies are not clearly defined.

CHP (Republican People's Party)

Overall, the Kemalist CHP, currently the main opposition party in the parliament, has the most inclusive and detailed manifesto. The manifesto does not have a separate section for women, mentioning women's issues instead under each relevant topic. This conveys the impression that the party does not consider women’s issues separately from other aspects of party policy, an approach more conducive, in the long run, to gender equality.

The CHP promises that protecting and developing women’s rights will be one of its main goals across public policy. The party plans to institute a gender quota for the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors and to increase women’s representation generally in the judiciary, one of Turkey's most controversial political institutions. And it promises to fight authoritarian, patriarchal perceptions that make women in Turkey more vulnerable than in more developed societies.

The CHP manifesto also includes promising employment policies. The party expresses the belief that increasing youth and women’s participation in the workforce promotes economic development, and pledges to remove barriers that limit women’s freedom to work and contribute to the economy. Another CHP plan is the creation of incentive systems to increase the percentage of women entrepreneurs and those working in knowledge-intensive sectors.

HDP (People's Democratic Party)

In making its first bid to cross the 10% threshold and enter the parliament, the HDP has been notable in terms of participation and representation of women in their party structures. It has a double presidency system not only at the top of the organisation, but also for each of its commissions—a commission, in fact, cannot be constituted if there is not a female co-leader. But despite this equality-based approach, Selahattin Demirtaş, the male head of the party, is clearly more visible and powerful than Figen Yüksekdağ, his female co-leader. This raises the question of whether HDP is merely using gender politics to pander to voters.

HDP’s manifesto is mostly focused on democracy, freedom of press, freedom of the judiciary, the peace process and the Kurdish issue, human rights and equality. Women’s issues and their solutions are evaluated in a sub-section entitled Equality and Freedom. Here, HDP asks women to dream of a Turkey where they can defend their own identity and labour efforts, where they are paid equally, receive the social support they deserve, and have 50% representation in the parliament without being subject to patriarchal or any other form of hegemony.

HDP promises to constitute a “Women’s Ministry”, and to make International Women's Day, March 8, a public holiday for women. It declares it will demilitarise the budget and make it more gender sensitive, as well as put an end to sexism in sports. It is also planning to lower the unemployment rate by increasing the participation of women in the workforce, and also to fight gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

In spite of their existence, however, none of these plans are outlined in any detail, and there is no explanation as to how they will be implemented.

MHP (Nationalist Movement Party)

Among the four major parties, MHP is the one that uses the word “woman” the least in its 2015 manifesto—only 13 times in 130 pages. Like AKP, MHP views the woman's role as being within the family, and issues related to women are covered in a section titled “Women, Children and Family”. The party pledges to empower the family structure by empowering the woman's position within it. It plans to increase female participation in the workforce and end discrimination against women in the workplace, but these pledges consist of a few sentences, again shorn of details.

A vote for change?

For the first time in the last decade, Turkish society is experiencing an uncertain pre-election environment. Previously, it was practically given that the AKP would gain a parliamentary majority and be able to form a single-party government. But with the rise of the HDP and the CHP enjoying what is arguably the best election campaign in its history, Erdogan’s dream of ushering in a presidential system and securing his place at the apex of Turkish politics is under threat.

Turkey still fails to ensure and protect the rights of women in the most fundamental areas. Living in a male-dominated society that exposes us to patriarchal pressures in our daily lives, we do not feel safe when we walk the streets alone late in the evening. In order to secure our most basic rights, we must begin the process of overturning the status quo and demand more of all the parties that make it into the next parliament.

*The regions where HDP has the potential to win are mostly populated by Kurds and statistics show that Kurds mostly vote either for AKP or HDP, rather than CHP the main opposition party.

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