Election Strategy for Turkish American Voters

Ali Günertem – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. -
The biggest difference between immigrants who have citizenship and those who hold green cards is the right to vote, which green card holders do not have. Within the unknown numbers of Turks in the diaspora, Turkish-Americans are known to vote in larger numbers for the Republican Party, which has a better reputation in terms of relations with Turkey.  
Ali Gunertem, TURKOFAMERICA Political Writer and TURKOFAMERICA Washington representative.

Even though their ideologies may line up quite nicely with the Democratic Party, relations with Turkey sometimes become a more pertinent issue for Turkish-American voters. This mode of thinking has proven to be a tremendous setback for the Turkish diaspora. This group overwhelmingly gave their votes to Republicans over the years, whereas, in my opinion, most people should vote according to their interests in domestic dynamics. Living in the U.S. but voting only based on Turkish interests is the wrong political game to play.

I had the opportunity to talk with many Turkish-American voters who have persistently voted Republican. Most adhere to the following logic: it was the Democrats who championed the Armenian Genocide Bill and therefore they were going to support the Republicans. None paid much attention to the political mistakes the Republicans have been guilty of recently, both on the domestic and the international stage.

For those who live, raise their children and pay taxes in the U.S., what should matter first and foremost is a candidate’s domestic agenda. Even if Turkey’s interests are to be taken into consideration, this should be done with more multi-dimensional thinking. The Republican candidate John McCain defended staying in Iraq, Turkey’s next-door neighbor, while Turkey has suffered significant commercial loss from this war.

Some Turkish voters ought to reconsider their decision to blindly support Republicans. This support appears to consist of nothing more than a narrow desire to hit out at allegations of an Armenian genocide does need more valid substantiation. I have no bones to pick with anyone who supports the Republicans based on their party program, the values they defend or their proposals for the country. Yet I struggle to reconcile the Republican profile of largely conservative, more patriotic and less tolerant of immigrant communities –such as ours– with the support it enjoys from immigrants.

If Turks are solely interested in the support Republicans offer against the Armenian genocide claims and are thus prepared to overlook any other shortcoming, this is disturbing. We are voting for the people who will lead the country in which we raise our children and hold the power to shape our personal future. If our own future in the United States begins to look bleak, the very same prospect applies to Turkey too. 

Following the same reasoning, should Turks resident in France support the ultra-nationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen simply because he does not support the Armenian Genocide Bill or those who reside in the Netherlands vote for Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat Appeal leader on the same pretext? What if those very same candidates support resolutions that break the back of citizens with Turkish origin on social security, health, education and justice?

Turks living abroad must obtain voting rights before they are able to exercise political power effectively. They must join parties closest to their own political beliefs and work within to alter, if needed, any preconceptions. I am not proposing that Turkish-Americans ignore problems in Turkey but if they want to spend much effort on Turkey-related subjects, I do think they should give serious consideration to entering the political arena in Turkey themselves.

Party politics ought to be different from fanatically supporting a football team. Turks in America should join Republicans or Democrats on national, state or city level, play active roles and demonstrate how they are an integral part of the system.

Siding with the Republicans simply on the basis of perceived Democrat support for the Armenian Genocide Bill is nothing more than taking the easy way out. It is akin to stating, “Why should we Turks try to change these policies, when there already is someone out there doing our work.”

The Washington-based non-profit organization Turkish Coalition of America indicates that prior to the November 4th elections in the U.S., 80 Representatives in Congress –the highest number ever– were sympathetic to issues relating to Turkey. Of this number, 44 are Democrats and 36 Republicans. It is clear, therefore, that Democrats no longer ignore us. Though there are exceptions, it is not hard to see that Democrats are not necessarily all prejudiced against Turks. If all you do is oppose without making a single attempt at explaining your own position, you naturally create an action-reaction mechanism.

What is the best way to follow? This is what should be done: voting should be based on the various lifestyles, beliefs, and world-views of the citizenry. If it should happen that there are anti-Turkish sentiments within that party, efforts should be made to convince party members otherwise. In the long-run, this political strategy is the best. In recent elections, there have been many Turkish-American voters who have drifted towards the Democratic Party, and Bill Clinton is largely the reason. If we examine this phenomenon closely, we see that there are many Turkish-Americans working for Democratic candidates, contributing to campaigns, and taking a more active role in the party's inner dynamics. Even if these efforts are a bit slow in bearing fruit, within time the Democratic Party's negative attitudes towards Turkey will change. If a candidate with close support from Turkish-Americans happens to make it to the White House, he will undoubtedly lend a more sympathetic ear to Turkish issues. That has been the longtime strategy of the anti-Turkish Greek and Armenian diaspora.

The most important part of this strategy is to insert Turkish-American citizens into the political machinery. Bringing a Turkish-American representative or senator to the Congress within the next 15 years should be the primary goal of the Turkish diaspora. The Turkish community took a big step towards this goal in 2007 with the forming of the organization “Turkish Coalition of America” (TCA). This organization is poised to come to the assistance of any Turkish-American living in the U.S. who wants to enter the world of politics. Knowledge and desire are the beginning of any political strategy but organizing and providing background strength lies in the realm of coalitions and teams. Turkish-Americans living in the U.S. should rid themselves of institutional and petty personal squabbles, join forces with the TCA, and enter the American political realm. When it comes down to it triumph can only be attained through unity and cooperation.

We Need New Candidates to Run
In the last few years, Turks living in the U.S. have increasingly ventured into politics. This is a positive development but there is a long way to go. Tarkan Öcal tried his luck with the Florida State Senate in 2002 while Jak Karako ran for New York State Senate in 2005 and Osman Bengür ran for the U.S. Congress in the 2006 elections in Maryland. While those pioneers did not make it, it remains essential to keep a positive attitude and field new candidates. The most recent candidate was Rıfat Sivişoğlu who is a Turkish American from DuPage, Illinois. He ran in the 2008 elections but unfortunately did not make it either.
Rıfat’s message to his constituency was economic. The main issues impacting the DuPage region were tax increases that create additional burdens on families and businesses. Increased taxes, reduced services, differences of opinion in DuPage administration, lack of transparency and the poor performance of the local government were all factors that kindled Rıfat’s desire to run for election. Since the presidential election was being fought on the economy platform, this choice of focus was correct for local elections.

Rıfat chose to run for a local, instead of federal seat; this allowed him to drop below the radar and thus avoid the unwelcome attention of anti-Turkish lobbies. Had he won, entering Congress from his constituency would have been his next goal.

All of us in the Turkish-American Diaspora need to support any Turkish candidate with this goal in view. This might consists of money. Our diaspora successfully raised a significant amount of money in the 2008 primaries alone (over one million dollars). Maybe it is not big amount of money when you compare it with the other large ethnic groups such as Armenian, Korean, Greek or Chinese but it is just starting. Please all remember that we are a new age immigrant community in the U.S.
U.S. election campaigns are tough for every candidate with a vested interest in Turkey. Whatever their identity, all anti-Turkish lobbies launch huge campaigns against candidates they view as close to Turkey. This holds true whether the candidate is a brand-new one, or an incumbent representative or senator. Candidates that represent specific interest groups are supported by huge donations from their communities. We witnessed this at close quarters during Osman Bengür’s campaign in 2006.
This political chess game is well planned and all parties friendly to Turkey are forced into corners. The staunchest ally of Turkey in the House and the head of Turkish-American Parliamentary Friendship Group, Robert Wexler, faces these attacks in Florida every election. What is needed is to learn the rules of the game well and play by the rules, rather than complain about the situation. It falls upon us to not only support candidates friendly to Turkey, but also to draw a long-term roadmap for candidates who rise from our ranks and explore ways of carrying them through to the House and the Senate.

* Ali Günertem's article is published by Turkish Quarterly Policy, Fall 2008 issue.
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07