With the suspension of an election regulation by the Turkish government nine years ago, the board elections of non-Muslim foundations were pushed into uncertainty. These foundations, which last held elections in 2011, have not been able to hold elections again since then, and a series of problems have accumulated, from the replacement of deceased board members to transparency. Finally, last week, a new election regulation was published in the Official Gazette and entered into force. However, the new regulation did not solve the old problems but instead sparked new discussions.
The new regulation increases the powers of the General Directorate of Foundations over non-Muslim foundations, granting it a decision-making rather than a merely supervisory role.
The conditions for standing as a candidate for the board of directors, especially for foundations operating in Istanbul and whose members are decreasing, did not meet expectations.
Full text of the new regulation for non-Muslim foundation elections:cemaat vakfi secim yonetmeliği
In addition, the elections at non-Muslim foundations that own hospitals were separated from other non-Muslim foundations. The Ministry of Health will determine the conditions under which elections will be held. Under the new regulation, it is foreseen that elections will be held at these foundations by the end of 2023. These are the foundations in which the most problems and frictions were previously experienced.
Officially, minorities in Turkey are made up of only non-Muslims, according to the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. The state plays a decisive role in the elections of non-Muslim foundations, while the board elections of other foundations in Turkey are quite simple. Therefore, rival groups competing in the elections of wealthy foundations occasionally accuse each other of collaborating with the state. While the elections in non-Muslim foundations must be approved by the General Directorate of Foundations, it is sufficient to simply notify the directorate for others.
There are currently 167 foundations belonging to minorities in Turkey; seven Greek, 54 Armenian, 19 Jewish, 10 Assyrian, three Chaldean, two Bulgarian, one Georgian and one Maronite.
A significant number of minorities demanded that the whole province/city be taken as the basis for the electoral district of foundations in Istanbul. As the reason for this, they cited that the number of foundation members in some districts and neighborhoods had decreased significantly and that the electoral district had to be expanded for an election with broad participation.
In the new regulation, for foundations outside of Istanbul, the electoral district was accepted as the entire province, while electoral constituencies based on parliamentary elections in İstanbul were included as electoral districts for those located in the city. Accordingly, Istanbul is divided into three parts. The constituency also determines who can be a candidate. According to the regulation, the candidate must have resided in the electoral district for at least six months as of the election date. Minorities state that the number of people who will meet this requirement will decrease significantly under this condition.
Another criticism of the new regulation is the privileges granted to those who are currently running the foundations. The current board is tasked with determining the electoral district, the date of the election, the list of voters registered in the foundation and the electoral organization committee, according to the new regulation. The current board will also decide on the method of voting. According to the regulation people will vote for individuals regardless of which list they are on, or they will only vote for a specific list containing the candidates for the board of directors.
Especially in foundations where there is fierce competition, those who oppose the actual foundation management object to this because a fair election will not take place. According to Armenian-Turkish lawmaker Garo Paylan, this is like one of the teams in a match being the referee at the same time.
Another criticism is the separation of foundations that own hospitals from other foundations. Elections in these foundations are often competitive, as they have revenue and significant assets. These are the foundations that have the most transparency problems. However, it is claimed that fixed properties belonging to these foundations are the reason why the government separates these foundations from the others. It is feared that the government will categorize these foundations as healthcare institutions and will eventually have the power to dispose of properties of these foundations.
Lawyer Sebu Aslangil is among those who argue that the new regulation falls short of the previous one. Aslangil thinks that hospital-owning foundations in particular are discriminated against.
“These are all non-Muslim foundations. It is an intrusive stance in itself that separates some of them from the others. The justification is a show of power of the state. … The main aim is to seize the revenues of these foundations,” he told Melike Çapan of the Gerçek Gündem news website.
Arguing that the Ministry of Health does not interfere with who will be a member of the board in private hospitals, Aslangil states that it should not interfere in the management of hospitals belonging to these non-Muslim foundations.
The intervention of the government in the election for the Armenian patriarch in 2019 had caused controversy, and a group of Armenians boycotted the election. The patriarch who was elected and some clergy were accused of collaborating with the state. Some minority representatives are concerned about similar situations, worrying about schisms and divisions within communities.
According to the 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom published by the US Department of State, non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia), 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines) and 12,000-16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs), 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits) and 10,000 Baha’is.
Estimates of other groups include 7,000 to 10,000 members of Protestant and evangelical Christian denominations, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians, fewer than 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians and fewer than 1,000 Yazidis
Candidates and voters in foundation elections are required to be citizens of the Republic of Turkey.