The Aga’s favourite

My assistant and I are having a cup of Turkish coffee with the mayor. We are visiting a town in the region of Batman in south-eastern Turkey. The town has 10,000 inhabitants and beautifully situated in rough hilly landscape surrounded by snowy mountains. It’s rare for ‘strangers’ to come here, so we were advised to inform the mayor of our visit beforehand. Of course we have to come for coffee, so here we are, tired from the journey and forcing ourselves to chat.
But soon the conversation gets interesting. The mayor wants to be re-elected in the upcoming local elections in March, but it’s not yet clear for which party he will run. Till now he has been a member of the (governing) AKP, but they decided to support somebody else. So if he wants to stay in his position, he needs to join another party. It will probably be the DSP, a small leftist party. Believe me, there’s a huge gap between the AKP and the DSP, they really have nothing in common, so it’s a weird step. But then… not that weird if you know anything about the reality of politics in the southeast. Who is in power here is not decided by the ballot box, but by the aga (pronounce ‘aaha’), in other words, landlord. Every region is ruled by different aga, and every aga is surrounded by an ‘asiret’, a sort of ‘family’ that also includes families that are not blood-related. There are big, powerful and old asiret, but also smaller ones with less power. Now in this region, it turns out that a few asiret are having trouble among themselves. Until this power struggle has been settled, the mayor will not officially run for re-election. As soon as the powerful aga who has supported the mayor up to now is sure to be still in charge in the region, the mayor knows that he will get enough votes to be re-elected. Then he joins a party that is willing to make him a candidate, in this case the DSP. And voilà, his re-election is assured, even before one vote has been cast. How does this last step work? Quite simple: the aga orders the people inside his asiret to vote for the candidate he supports. If as a normal civilian you vote for somebody else and the aga finds out, it could mean for example that you can’t work on the aga’s land any more and you lose your income, or you are not protected any more by your asiret if you happen to get into trouble somehow. In any case it seems that people don’t even consider voting for somebody other than the aga’s favourite. The aga system is ancient, going back eons, and the people are used to it.
And me? I knew of the aga system of course, but I was not aware of it functioning so openly. So I was surprised when the mayor told us within five minutes that there was some aga trouble to be sorted out before he could officially declare himself a candidate. I thought the powers that be would at least try to keep up democratic appearances.

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