Dr. Ohannes Kilicdagi: “Communities should be able to elect their foundation administration however they want.”

Dr. Ohannes Kilicdagi: “Communities should be able to elect their foundation administration however they want.”
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167 community foundations in Turkey were not able to hold elections for the last nine years

Dr. Ohannes Kilicdagi gave an interview to +GercekNews on the minority community foundation elections. The 167 foundations of Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Syriac, Chaldean, Bulgarian, Georgian, and Maronite communities were not able to hold elections since 2013. The debates on the elections also include topics such as the electoral districts.

Kilicdagi answered questions on the foundation regulations, the potential electoral constituencies, the AKP government’s strategy on the foundations, the recent meeting of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu with foundation representatives, and the possible ways to reform the foundation elections. Kilicdagi says that “If there is no consensus within a minority community on how to hold elections or on any other issue, the role of the state should be to act as an arbitrator which observes democratic rules, rather than imposing its own opinion.”

Dr. Ohannes Kilicdagi is a researcher on inter-communal interaction in multi-ethnoreligious societies, citizenship, minorities, non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, the history of citizenship and military service, historical sociology, and philosophy of history. He was a research affiliate at the History Department of MIT during the 2019-2020 academic year. He was Kazan Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies at California State University, Fresno in Fall 2020, and a Dumanian Visiting Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the University of Chicago in Spring 2022. He is also one of the columnists of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos.

Why could an election not be held for nine years?

The main reason for this is that the relevant articles of the Foundations Regulation were canceled by the Directorate General of Foundations (VGM) in 2013 and no other regulations were made until June 2022. VGM also rejected the election applications made by foundations during this period. However, it was legally necessary for the old one to remain valid until the new regulation was introduced. Furthermore, considering the provision of the Law on Foundations that the managers of minority foundations should be elected, the law was clearly violated during this period.

Why were the demands to hold province-wide elections not accepted? What is the importance of the constituency issue for the congregations?

There is no explanation from the government or the VGM as to why this request was not accepted, so we do not know the exact reason. I cannot think of any logical or well-intentioned reason for not accepting these requests. Moreover, some Armenian foundations held Istanbul-wide elections many times throughout history. There is no reason not to have it that way now.

The populations of minority communities have decreased considerably and are unevenly distributed within Istanbul. While thousands of people live in some districts, the minority community members living in some districts are in the single digits. In addition, properties are not evenly distributed among foundations; while some foundations have no property, therefore no income, some foundations have a high income. Another asymmetry is the distribution of population and property. That is, in some cases, large properties belonging to the entire Armenian community are in the hands of foundations that have few voters left. The importance of the constituency comes into play here because it is a democratic necessity that the managers who will manage these properties and are expected to use their incomes for the benefit of society, such as education, health, and social services, should be elected by the widest possible voter base. Otherwise, if the elections are held with a limited electorate, the fate of the properties belonging to the whole society and expected to benefit the whole society will be shaped by the will of a handful of people.

How has the government strategy on foundations changed over 20 years?

This question does not have an answer different from the general result of the AKP administration for 20 years. During the 2003-2008 era, while it had shortcomings and mistakes, the most advanced regulations in the history of the Republic were made regarding the administration of minority foundations and the return of their properties that were expropriated in the past. The Foundations Law, dated 2008 and numbered 5737, which is still in effect, gave minority foundations opportunities that they did not have before. However, while the AKP governments did not pave the way for an inclusive return of all expropriated properties, they blocked the foundation elections for nine years for an unspecified reason, eventually issuing an election regulation that violates earned rights. In my opinion, the reason why the AKP has shifted from relatively liberal policies to authoritarian and nationalist policies is the reason behind this change.

What does Suleyman Soylu's latest visit mean?

I think Soylu did not come to visit, a meeting was held at the governor's office. But, in my opinion, besides this last meeting with Soylu, the real question to ask is why the Minister of Interior is interested in this issue because foundations are affiliated with the VGM and the VGM is connected to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Administration of foundations and their elections are not an area or topic that directly concerns the Interior Minister. However, there might be a need for the Interior Minister through indirect means, such as ensuring security during elections. Then why is Suleyman Soylu involved in this? I think the answer to this question must be related to the power and influence that Soylu is trying to create around himself, and the large properties of the foundations I mentioned above.

How can the electoral system in foundations be reformed?

We can explain this in technical terms, and we can elaborate, but the main thing is how the issue should be approached with a management mentality. The state, so far, approached this issue just like how they approached other issues related to minorities; with a skeptical and restrictive approach. Instead, on the contrary, a liberal understanding should be adopted. These communities should be able to elect their foundation administration however they want. There is no democratic reason to impose restrictive provisions on this issue. In addition, since minority communities have different demographic and social conditions, the establishment of separate electoral regulations for separate communities should be considered. If there is no consensus within a minority community on how to hold elections or on any other issue, the role of the state should be to act as an arbitrator which observes democratic rules, rather than imposing its own opinion, as the Constitutional Court underlined.