When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdrogan recently expressed a wish to see more women running in the country's upcoming July 22 parliamentary elections, Ibrahim Ozyavuz, a mayor from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), heeded his leader's call.
Using his influence, Ozyavuz made sure that a woman's name was added to the list of local AKP candidates, the first time a major political party had ever done so in the Sanliurfa region of southeastern Turkey, which, in social terms, is an extremely conservative place. Ozyavuz, the mayor of a small town outside the city of Sanliurfa, was intimately familiar with the groundbreaking candidate's qualifications. After all, the parliamentary hopeful, a geophysicist named Cagla Ozyavuz, happened to be his wife.
Not that this was anything unusual. In many parts of southeast Turkey, where hidebound traditions and blood ties rule and feudal clans dominate public life, politics can be a family affair. When election time comes around, political parties have long known that having a leader of a clan known as "asiret" in Turkish as a candidate can guarantee victory at the ballot box.
In Sanliurfa an ancient city that is said to be the birthplace of Abraham, a revered figure among Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as home to a sprawling and noisy bazaar, known for its finely crafted copper bowls and plates members of important clans fill the top spots of the AKP's candidate list and are prominent in several other parties' lists. The same is true in other cities in the southeast.
In many ways, asirets are one of the most potent local political forces. For some, they are also the greatest obstacles to democratization in the region. "Family ties are very important here," says Mustafa Zura, a tailor who works in a small workshop in a 500-year-old caravansary, its large courtyard filled with men sitting on low stools sipping tea and playing backgammon. "If you're a member of an asiret, you are not alone, doors are opened for you. If you are outside it, you are on your own," said Zura, who belongs to one of the city's smaller asirets.
Talking to local politicians about the asirets, though, is a bit like forcing them to open up about a dirty and well-kept family secret. Muzaffer Cakmakli, a leader of the local branch of the right wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and himself reputed to be an asiret member, gave a dismissive wave of his hand when queried about the political influence of clans. "There are no more clans in [Sanliurfa], only political parties," Cakmakli insisted.
The question of asirets, meanwhile, brought a pained look to the face of Mehmet Fevzi Uctepe, Sanliurfa's deputy mayor. "They are part of civil society, like mutual aid societies," Uctepe says, speaking slowly and parsing his words carefully during an interview in the modern-looking AKP-run city hall. "If we look at the clans as families, we can see the good things they do, such as helping each other."
"Their political power is slowly decreasing," Uctepe added. "A few years ago they were much more able to have their way."
But some locals dispute the contention that asirets have lost much influence. They point to the AKP's candidate list to support their argument. Zura, the tailor, singled out Zulfukar Izol, leader of a large and powerful clan and a current AKP parliamentarian running for reelection. "He's uneducated. He's not solving any of Sanliurfa's problems. But he's second on the candidate list," the tailor alleged during a tea break. "Why? Because the party leaders know he can deliver votes."
Kemal Kapakli, editor-in-chief of Guneydogu, Sanliurfa's oldest daily newspaper, says the asirets still represent a kind of easy, one-stop shopping electoral opportunity for Turkey's political parties. "The asirets are leaders in local politics. They are extremely strong. When party leaders are choosing candidates here, they are taking into consideration how many voters from their clan are standing behind them," said Kapakli, who also serves as a kind of local historian. "It's like a popular brand name."
Up until the 1970's, asirets were usually associated with Turkey's rural towns and villages, where ancient feudal family structures revolving around agricultural life had survived intact. Rural displacement during the past few decades, though, has helped make asirets part of the social and political fabric in many cities in southeastern Turkey.
Mazhar Bagli, a professor of sociology at Dicle University, in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, estimated that close to 50 percent of Sanliurfa's population is connected to one clan or another.
Bagli and others believe the power of the asirets, and the tendency of political parties to defer to the clan system in many areas, has hampered the democratization process in southeastern Turkey. "The parties must believe in the power of democratic politics, not only in the power of the asirets," Bagli said. "If they want to have truly democratic power, they need to get their strength from something other than the asirets."
The recent political experience of Mahmut Cevheri, a successful local businessman, underscores the continuing power that asirets enjoy. Cevheri created a scandal when he announced his intention to run as a candidate for the Democratic Party, even though his elder brother, Sabahattin, is the leader of a powerful local asiret, and is the AKP's top candidate in city.
Ultimately, Cevheri's quest to get on the Democratic Party's candidate list failed. He attributed this disappointment to meddling by his relatives. "The power of the family is still strong," Cevheri said with a resigned smile.
"It's not democracy if people only follow what one person tells them to do. The families are bound together by blood, but it's not democracy that binds them," said Cevheri, sitting in his large office in an elite Sanliurfa private school he opened last year, where one wall is covered with students' research projects about, among other things, the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
"If you are an individual from the village and you need a loan from the bank, the asiret will help you get the loan. It's a kind of local government, and there are many local governments like this in the city," he added, striving to illuminate the source of asirets' continuing power. "Nobody wants this system to continue, but it depends on the larger government system. If it becomes responsive, then the asiret system will weaken, but if it isn't responsive, the clans will continue to be strong."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Turkey.