In southeastern Turkey, democracy feels the sway of ancient clan culture

Political parties often tap clan leaders, knowing a host of loyal voters will follow. But some say such practices are a hindrance to democracy.

Mustafa Zura isn't so sure his parliamentary representative in this ancient city is getting the job done. But he's not surprised that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has thrown its weight behind Zulfukar Izol ahead of this weekend's election.

"Why?" asks the tailor during a break, his courtyard filled with men sitting on low stools sipping tea and playing backgammon. "Because the party leaders know he can deliver votes."

As the leader of a powerful clan in this conservative southeastern region, Mr. Izol represents a kind of easy, one-stop shopping electoral opportunity for Turkey's political parties.

"When party leaders are choosing candidates here, they are taking into consideration how many voters from their clan are standing behind them," explains Kemal Kapakli, editor in chief of Guneydogu, this city's oldest daily newspaper. "It's like a popular brand name."

But while clans, or asirets, may facilitate the electoral process here, some see them as the greatest obstacles to democratization in the region.

"The parties must believe in the power of democratic politics, not only in the power of the asirets," says Mazhar Bagli, a professor of sociology at Dicle University in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir. "If they want to have truly democratic power, they need to get their strength from something other than the asirets."

Until the 1970s, asirets were usually associated with rural Turkey, where ancient feudal family structures revolving around agricultural life had survived intact.

But as Turks have moved from the countryside to the cities, asirets have become part of the social and political fabric in many of southeast Turkey's cities.

Professor Bagli estimates that close to 50 percent of Sanliurfa's population is connected to a clan. "Family ties are very important here," says Mr. Zura. "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," says Zura, who belongs to one of the city's smaller asirets.

Talking to politicians about the asirets, though, is a bit like forcing them to open up about a family secret.

"There are no more clans in Urfa, only political parties," says Muzaffer Cakmakli, leader of the local branch of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), with a dismissive wave of the hand.

But others are more equivocal. "They are part of civil society, like mutual-aid societies," says Mehmet Fevzi Uctepe, Sanliurfa's deputy mayor, choosing his words carefully during an interview in the AKP-run city hall. But their political power is slowly decreasing, he adds. "A few years ago, they were much more able to have their way."

Indeed, some cracks are appearing in the clans' hold on local affairs.

A local scandal erupted in Sanliurfa this spring when Mahmut Cevheri, a successful local businessman hoping to run for the Democratic Party (DP), was upstaged by his older brother's decision to run for a competing party – the AKP.

The elder Mr. Cevheri, the leader of a powerful local asiret, became the AKP's top candidate in the city, while Mahmut failed to make the DP's list. He says meddling by his relatives did him in.

"It's not democracy if people only follow what one person tells them to do," says Cevheri, sitting in his large office in the 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.

"Nobody wants this system to continue, but it depends on the larger government system," he adds. "If it becomes responsive, then the asiret system will weaken. But if it isn't responsive, the clans will continue to be strong."

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