Turkey and the challenges ahead

Simon Hooper reports from Ankara on the outcome of key Turkish elections and analyses some of the ch

As someone who has covered the high drama and hysteria of elections in Bolivia and Venezuela, Sunday's Turkish elections in Ankara proved to be a surprisingly sedate affair with none of the mass euphoria, street parties, music and colour I associate with votes in South America.

Having spent the previous day racing around the nearby countryside with a 200 car-strong rolling carnival of AKP (Justice and Development Party) supporters decorated in the party's orange and blue colours, tossing flags, flyers and other party-themed paraphenalia out of the window at excited villagers, it all seemed particularly anti-climactic.

But Turkey's strict election laws forbid campaigning on the day of the vote itself. Cars still carrying party colours were stopped by police and ordered to remove them, the vans with campaign songs blaring from roof-mounted loudspeakers were noticeable for their absence and even the bunting strung between every available lamppost had been pulled down overnight, leaving Ankara looking like a house that had been zealously tidied the morning after a party.

Perhaps the heat – 36 degrees on Sunday – also helped stifle political passions. On the other hand, it may be a sign of the growing maturity of Turkey's young democracy that one of the most important votes in the country's history was conducted with a minimum of fuss in a quiet, orderly fashion.

On the face of it, Sunday's result appears to be a straightforward success for AKP leader and ruling prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had been forced to call elections months ahead of schedule after falling out with the country's political establishment in a row over his administration's supposed Islamist-leanings.

Erdogan was not only re-elected but re-elected emphatically as his party's share of the overall vote surged to 46.7 percent from just 34.3 percent five years ago.

First and foremost then, Erdogan has secured a massive democratic endorsement from a broad cross-section of Turkish society for his party's pick-and-mix populist programme of liberalising economic reforms, welfarist tendencies and cultural conservatism.

But the AKP still faces a delicate political situation. It must now once again return to the unresolved task of choosing the country's next president – the issue that prompted secularist outcry back in April over the government's nomination of foreign minister Abdullah Gul due to the fact that Gul's wife, like Erdogan's, wears a headscarf.

Erdogan has also pledged constitutional reforms including a referendum on whether future presidents should be elected directly by popular vote and shifting more of the presidency's executive powers to parliament.

Yet even his comfortable majority falls short of the two-thirds necessary for any major tinkering with Turkey's well-entrenched system of checks and balances and it is hard to see either the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – traditional defenders of the secularist legacy of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – or the resurgent far right Nationalist Party (MHP) coming to his aid.

It also remains to be seen for how long Turkey's secularist institutions – particularly the army – will be prepared to respect and accept Sunday's result as the 'will of the people'.

Turkey's military leaders have long made a habit of interfering in politics, overthrowing three governments directly since 1960, and undermining a fourth – which included Erdogan and Gul - by more subtle means in 1997.

While coups may no longer be as fashionable or as accomplishable as they once were, the Turkish military's influence in Ankara's corridors of power still runs deep.

In April, it was an army statement – published on the internet – threatening to intervene against the election of a non-secular presidential candidate, that did most to trigger the political crisis leading to Sunday's election.

"They used to send tanks onto the street. Officers would take over TV stations," says Ibrahim Kalin, a columnist for the Zaman newspaper.

"Now they just send an e-mail. You can think of the army as Turkey's perennial government - they are always in power."

Already Erdogan is under pressure to sanction an escalation of the army's campaign against the PKK following a recent wave of attacks by the Kurdish separatists, including operations into Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq.

Many moderate Turks fear such a move would only stoke the Iraqi cauldron, incite further PKK violence and damage the country's faltering relations with the US, yet sanctioning a cross-border campaign may well be a price Erdogan – who has already vowed to do "whatever is necessary" - is forced to pay in return for an uneasy truce with his deeply distrustful generals over his domestic agenda.

Ultimately however, as the only party trying to occupy the political centre ground, the biggest challenge facing Erdogan and the AKP is likely to be holding together its broad support base in a country still coming to terms with its own complexities.

Turkey is an essentially contradictory place where aspirational westernised lifestyles and a traditional Islamic identity collide, sometimes jarringly, every day. My personal favourite example of this came at a magazine stand in Ankara where I spotted copies of Turkish FHM advertising "SEKS: KARMA SUTRA!" while a muezzin from a nearby mosque wailed in the background.

Beyond the recognisably European major cities, however, Turkey remains a conservative Islamic country in which socialising is largely segregated by sex, the majority of women wear headscarves and alcohol consumpion is rare.

Yet there is also a keen appreciation of the benefits and challenges of globalisation on the Turkish economy, an openness to new ways of doing things, and a progressive attitude to education. Many traditional Turkish families nowadays chose to send their daughters onto futher education in Austria or Germany to bypass the dogmatic secularism that forbids headscarves in university classrooms.

More than any other party, AKP has set about addressing those contradictions in a way that fits the reality of Turkish life beyond the delusional world inhabited by the country's secular elite.

"The secularists have an image of Turkey that is fully western in outlook, in lifestyle, and the fact that a Turkish president could have a wife who wears a headscarf shatters that image," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a newly-elected AKP representative for Cankiri province.

"Turkey is a country with many variations of grey and you cannot describe it in black or white. It's impossible."

Turkey, then, has many paths from which to choose and one election is unlikely to go a long way towards deciding determining its future. But the fact that Turks voted so emphatically against the authoritarian tendencies of the traditional establishment suggests that at least the tone of that debate will be democratic.

"We've come a long way to embracing democracy in a genuine sense," says Kalin. "But democracy becomes powerfully influential in terms of social justice, equality and fairness if the society is strengthened, not the state. It doesn't work if the state sees itself as this patrimonial boss, saying 'I am here to fix your mistakes.' If we can change that balance, Turkish democracy can grow even stronger."

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.


Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.