The candidates up for office in Turkey's local elections this weekend include Jews, Armenian Christians, and a transgender woman. Never before have so many non-traditional politicians been on the ballot in the mostly Muslim country. The World's Aaron Schachter reports that some Turks see this as a sign of democratization, but others say it's a ploy to curry favor with the European Union.
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AARON SCHACHTER: In predominately Muslim Turkey, Armenians and Greeks, who are Christian, and Jews are the country's only officially recognized minorities. After nearly a hundred years of state hood it shouldn't be a big deal to see them standing for office, but it is. Nasar Koeni is a Turkish analyst.
NASAR KOENI: This is the sort of beginning of the democratization and Europeanization process. This has given hope to Turkish people - the Turkish liberals and Turkish intellectuals and even the low-income people. There is no other big project that can raise hopes in Turkey.
AARON SCHACHTER: Two minority candidates are running for mayor on a group of islands called Adalar, which sit just off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. One candidate is Jewish, the other an Armenian Christian. If either wins he would be Turkey's first non-Muslim mayor. Karabet Yaila is the Armenian candidate from the Democratic Left Party, or DSP. He and about a dozen supporters met in a small park on the island, festooned with banners and pictures of the candidate. But it's hardly an overwhelming showing. â€œHonestly,â€ Yaila says with a chuckle, â€œI can't say if we'll win or not. I do know we're running to win. But we're running a quiet respectful campaign.â€ As if on cue, campaigners from a larger party march by the park, loudspeakers blaring. But despite the DSP being vastly outgunned, one of Yaila's supporters, Engin Daya, says there's no reason in the world why his candidate shouldn't win. Daya says, â€œIt's significant that Karabet Yaila is running in a place that is predominantly Armenian; this island may be 2/3rds Armenian. With the support of the community he could win easily, and Armenians will finally have one of their own in charge.â€ But minority communities often don't want one of their own in charge, says Mehmet Ozkormaz. He's a Muslim, and a city councilor for the islands. â€œTurkish minorities aren't really ready for minority candidates,â€ Ozkormaz says. â€œIt's usually middle age people who vote, and they're nervous about their communities getting into politics. They'd rather be invisible, and so they don't even support their own candidates.â€ Ozkormaz says when more young people vote that may change. Much of the rest of the Adalar islands is Jewish. The Jewish candidate has told Turkish reporters he hasn't received especially strong support from his community either. Ironically, candidates that you might expect would be shunned, are relatively well accepted in Turkey, in large part because the community supporting them isn't based on religion. Bayin Chilik is a transgender candidate running for neighborhood leader in Istanbul's Taksim district. She works with an activist group for gays and lesbians. Her headquarters is at a new feminist bookshop, called Amargi Cafe. Chilik says someone like her definitely couldn't have run a decade ago.
BAYIN CHILIK: Yes it's a change, actually. It means that the shell has been cracked. It's opening up its shell. You know, imagine a walnut shell and it's been cracked right now and it's kind of becoming a tree.
AARON SCHACHTER: But where some see a tree blooming, others see political opportunism. Yasar Nur Ozturk is a Turkish columnist. Ozturk says, â€œI've been saying for 30 years that minorities should be involved in politics. But I don't trust that this election represents a real change in Turkish society. I think the ruling AK Party is doing this to curry favor with Europe and it's become a trend - every party now has to have a minority candidate.â€ Ozturk says, â€œAfter the minority candidates win, I think he'll be pushed aside by the parties.â€ For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, Istanbul, Turkey.