21 July 2007

1823) Ready To Vote With A Foreign Accent

A segment of the foreign community in Turkey has gained Turkish citizenship and will head to the polls on Sunday to cast their votes for their new homeland. Others wish they could participate in this year's elections . .

As Turkey gears up for elections and candidates serve promises left and right, the country's foreign community looks on with wonder and anticipation. Some are content to watch, others seek citizenship to participate, and a select few can already exercise their civic right. Although foreigners with Turkish citizenship who can vote are not great in numbers, they have a vested interest in Sunday's outcome. How will those who have gained citizenship in Turkey define their role in this election? It depends entirely on the individual. But all would agree with what one woman interviewed said: “Turkey is never what it looks like on paper.”

Ahmet Saatci, 37, general manager for Century 21 Turkey, has been a Turkish citizen since 1997. But he opted not to vote in the 2000 presidential election. "I didn't think of voting – maybe I was just being lazy, shooting the breeze, having a nice brunch, " he said. This time he will cast a vote but with cynicism. "I don't think any of the candidates or parties deserve a vote that I can provide," he said. "So I'm going to vote for somebody who will be a definite winner." With the complicated system of percentages and party majorities, Saatci thinks "one vote is not one vote" and that his ballot will not make a significant difference.

Irish citizen Andy Lawler, 55, also in the real estate business as a partner for Remax Star in Alanya, has a different view on voting. After seven years living and working in Turkey, he decided to apply for citizenship three months ago. When, or if, the application will go through is uncertain. But while he won't be able to voice his opinion through a ballot this year, he feels invested as a Turkish resident in the outcome of the elections.

Lawler is the first to admit that he is “not 100 percent into politics,” and that viewing the election as a foreigner, “there is probably more than meets the eye” in the contest. He said Turkey has taken what he called “a major step in the right direction” under the direction of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). “In the last two years they've cut out a lot of red tape, making it easier for foreigners to gain residency, buy property, etc.,” Lawler said. Life has eased for foreigners living and working in Turkey, he believes, and for that reason his vote would be cast for the AKP.

U.S. native Ruthie Cansiz, in Turkey for four years, became a Turkish citizen only a few months ago to avoid logistical obstacles like those Lawler first encountered. “I did apply for citizenship seriously out of ease of living,” she explained. “This is like a permanent living document for me.”

But Cansiz will not vote on Sunday, despite her right to do so. “I still don't feel knowledgeable to actually cast a vote,” she explained. “I'm definitely on the fence, but hopefully for an intelligent reason – I want to be able to cast a vote,” she said. “I think as an international person I may even possibly have a greater voice here in Turkey as an international citizen, because I can see things that the Turks don't.” But she wants more time to figure out the complexities of Turkish politics before voicing her opinion at the polls.

Voting ‘like a Turk'
Jennifer Gökman does not see her American origin as defining her upcoming vote in the same way. Unlike other new Turkish citizens interviewed, she strongly objects to continued AKP rule. She gained citizenship upon marrying her husband in 1994. She considers her citizenship as much more than a convenience. “I think I am probably more politically involved in Turkey than I was living in America,” she said. She attributes this to a number of factors, including the political involvement of her father-in-law, a former MP of the Republican People's party CHP. Gökman says the recent improvements in foreigners' lifestyles under the AKP are not a factor in her voting. “Logistically it's easier, economically it's been easier, but the reasons for this ease and this comfort do not make life easier in the long run if what you've accepted turns out to be a sell out of your principles,” she claimed. She traditionally has cast her vote for the CHP but has no confidence in the party's current leadership. “At this point I'm leaning towards Nationalistic Movement Party (MHP) but I'm not finalized in my decision yet.” But she is adamant about one thing: she is not voting for AKP. “On paper the current administration looks like it's doing a good job, but if you look past that veneer, there are a lot of things going on that seem to be very questionable.”

Nancy Özturk, originally from the United States, regrets the fact that after thirty years in Turkey she does not have the right to vote. “I want to be a citizen, I feel like I'm a Turk, I wish I could vote,” said Özturk. She will apply for citizenship next week, she claimed – but admitted that she has “been saying that for ten years,” not an uncommon sentiment among long-time foreign residents given the complicated application process. Like Lawler and Cansiz, she too had a positive experience with an individual AKP official, who assisted her with a business complication for the publishing company she runs in Istanbul. But despite this personal experience, her vote would go first to an independent candidate for greater political reasons: “I would vote for Baskin Oran, an independent. He's the person who reflects my views. He's for minority rights – Kurdish, Armenian.” And if Oran were not running? “I would vote for the AKP, but my hand would shake,” she stated. While she applauds the party's accomplishments on European Union candidacy, economic stability, and minority rights, she voiced concerns about the party's long-term objectives. “I've had a terrible time trying to figure out what's going on,” she said regarding this year's elections. “It's upsetting.”

Americans Linda and Gary Caldwell feel they have become true members of Turkey after thirty years of living in and out of the country – and they recently gained the citizenship to prove it. “We've had such a long association with Turkey that I've always wanted to be able to have a say in it,” Linda explained. “The national anthem comes on and I cry. I'm not a born Turk, but I feel very Turkish.” Who will they entrust with the country's future this Sunday? “In this case I'm willing to take my chances with the AKP – they've done so much for the country,” Gary explained, comparing the country's infrastructure today to the difficulties they faced living in 1970s Turkey. But Linda, also planning to support the AKP, explained that this would not be a carefree vote: “Both of us think that in spite of what we think to be [the AKP's] long-term aims, we hope that the checks and balance control that are put into Turkish politics will balance out any direction they may go that we feel is erroneous. We just have to hope in the system and in the Turkish people that that will happen.” They are anxious to see their first Turkish ballot this Sunday, she explained. “We want to see a copy of what this looks like – we don't really know what we'll be facing!”

Casting a vote

Regardless of their past voting patterns, all foreigners and new Turkish citizens interviewed voiced their commitment to vote in elections to come. As countries like Ireland, the United States, and Turkey undergo periods of great change, these civilians will exercise their civic right with greater attention. “You can't stand on the fence, you've got to make a decision,” Cansiz claimed, forsaking her previous decision to forgo voting. “I definitely believe in voting and I will here too as a result.”

If for no other reason, as Gary Caldwell put it after explaining his long, arduous experience becoming a citizen in Turkey: “if you're going to get citizenship, why duck the one big responsibility of citizenship of voting for whoever is going to run your country?”
July 20, 2007
ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News


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