How the tide turned against Turkey’s rulers

September 1, 2015

Two summers ago, small protests in Istanbul against the demolition of a central green space, Gezi Park, in order to build a shopping mall spread to a national political upsurge that has since shaken the power of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In June elections, the Islamist party's share of the vote dropped from just under 50 percent, denying it an opportunity to form the government for a third term in power. Little changed from the last election in 2011 for the other main parties in Turkey--the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP), at one time, the dominant force in Turkish politics, often ruling with the support of the military; and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The big winner was the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a recently formed alliance of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political forces that won 13 percent of the vote, enough to win representation in parliament and deny the AKP their majority. With no coalition government emerging, a new election has been set for November 1.

Ozan Tekin is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP), which is affiliated with the International Socialist Tendency. He answered questions from Bill Mullen about the backdrop to the AKP's defeat, the Turkish state's war against the Kurds, and the prospects for the working class and the revolutionary left in the wake of the Gezi protests.

LET'S START with the Turkish state. The Justice and Development Party lost its parliamentary majority in the June election, in part because of the success of the People's Democratic Party. Since then, there have been several failed attempts to form a new government. How does the revolutionary left assess the apparent instability of the Turkish state at this moment and the challenge of the HDP?

THE AKP has been in government for 13 years. After the elections in 2002, it was able to form a majority government in parliament. This was a relief for the ruling class after a period of crisis between 1999 and 2002, at the end of which all the parties that had participated in a coalition government--a center-right party, a center-left wing party and the fascists--lost significant amounts of support. The AKP was promising stability, economic success and the prospect of joining the European Union (EU).

But the Turkish state and big capital is traditionally hostile to Islamists. The AKP leadership has its roots in the Islamic movement that was overthrown in 1997 in what was called a "post-modern" coup [because the government was forced out by the military without suspending the constitution]. This was one in a series of military takeovers in modern Turkish history.

Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square at night
Democracy demonstrators fill Taksim Square in Istanbul during the Gezi struggle

So as soon as the AKP took power in 2002, there were plans and plots to overthrow them hatched inside the army from the start. This peaked in 2007, a few months before the elections with a wave of highly nationalistic protests known as "Rallies for the Republic," which were organized by the deep state and army and led politically by the Kemalist party, the Republican People's Party, and the fascists of the Nationalist Movement Party. The rallies were accompanied by official threats from army leaders that they were about to intervene in politics to save "secularism."

In Turkey, any party and individual victimized or overthrown by the military gains popularity. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the beneficiary of this in the elections of 2007, with the AKP reaching 47 percent of the popular vote. The party's share of the vote grew by more than one-third over the 34 percent it won in 2002.

To avoid the danger of a military takeover, the AKP developed a strategy to influence wider sections of Turkish society. It promised improvements in human rights; an end to the Kurdish war, by recognizing that the Kurdish question exists and the state had made serious mistakes; putting the military generals who were plotting a coup on trial; and lowering the level of racism against Armenians by trying to build ties with the Armenian state.

The period between 2002 and 2013 was also an era of economic growth, in which the ruling class was the main beneficiary, but ordinary people also had better conditions compared to the past. Turkey's economy, after a short period of crisis and an increase in unemployment, wasn't seriously damaged by the global crisis of 2008, and kept growing. All these added fuel to the AKP's success, and the party reached 50 percent of the vote in 2011.

Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, everything has started to change for the government.

First, the AKP turned its back on all policies it defended in the earlier period. Every protest was met with brutal police repression and the reversal of democratic rights. There was a shift to a harder position in denying the Armenian Genocide as its 100th anniversary approached.

The peace process with the Kurds became very fragile as the government took a very hostile stance. Imprisoned military generals were released on the argument that their jailing was a "witch hunt" against the army--this was to help the government prove that corruption accusations and trials against many AKP leaders were also "witch hunts," organized by the movement led by Erdoğan's rival, Fethullah Gülen.

Basically, the AKP started to act in a completely opposite way from what it had done since 2002.

The dynamics that shaped Turkish society in the first decade of 2000s were pro-democracy struggles, mass sentiment against Kemalism and the army leadership, growing disapproval of the civil war against the Kurds and support for a peace process, and a growing rejection of the racism against any minority that the state had historically targeted.

These dynamics, which once helped the AKP to survive military threats and made it very strong and popular, dug the grave of Erdoğan and his friends. In the June elections, the AKP lost almost a fifth of its share of the popular vote. This was after some months of infighting among the party leadership.

It's very important to understand this crisis alongside two factors. One is the peace process with Kurds. The popular discontent with the war and the struggle for a different direction opened up democratic space for every kind of struggle for the oppressed.

Then there was Gezi--a mass movement against the government that was very different from the republican rallies of 2007 and had a libertarian soul at its core. This was the crucial movement that started the process of decline for the AKP. Even though the Gezi movement didn't go on to produce a political formation, it caused a crisis for not only AKP, but the ruling class as a whole.

A few months after Gezi, the Gülen movement split away from the AKP, with its figures in the judiciary coming up with serious allegations of corruption and robbery against the government. The AKP labeled this as a "coup" and started to eliminate Gülen supporters from among the police and judiciary. But even 50 percent of AKP supporters--though they followed the "coup" line officially--believed the allegations. This is another aspect of the growing anger against the government.

Then came the Soma mine disaster in May 2014, in which a total of 301 workers were killed. The popular belief was that they died because of the neoliberal policies that the AKP had implemented for years. Workplace "accidents" and safety became a major debate throughout society, and the ministers of the AKP behaved in such an arrogant way that everybody became convinced that they were the reason behind thousands of workplace deaths over the years.

After the latest elections in which the AKP suffered its setback, none of the mainstream parties were able to form a coalition government, so we'll now have new elections on November 1. Opinion polls show that the share of votes isn't likely to change. We're entering a period of great instability for the ruling class--this also sets the context for the prospects of even wider struggles for freedom.

WHAT CAN you say about the role of the working class movement and the left in this picture?

THE LABOR movement has been very weak and divided over political questions for the last three decades. There are as many as seven different trade union confederations in all. The military coup of 1980 was successful in smashing working class organizations and the left. In the 1990s, there were struggles by public workers that won them the right to form official trade unions.

The most militant unions became weaker and weaker because of their reaction to the military coups--instead of opposing them outright, the unions took the position of "No to the army, no to sharia" in 1990s, which in practice meant not standing up against the army in favor of democracy.

But now there's a glimpse of hope. After the Soma mining disaster--or "massacre," as we on the left call it--there's a very significant rise in the number of strikes around the country. Even in the regions where the AKP is very strong and industrial workers have traditionally been less eager to take action, we've seen unofficial strikes.

In the first six months following Soma in May 2014, there was a 51 percent rise in the number of strikes, compared to the previous six months. In 2015, the actions grew even bigger with two waves of strikes by industrial workers.

In January, the left-wing trade union federation called an official strike for 15,000 workers in 22 different factories. This strike was "postponed" by the government--which, in reality, meant it was barred.

Then, in May, came unofficial strikes by workers organized in Türk Metal, a right-wing union led by elements of the deep state and the fascists. These strikes were against both the bosses and the leadership of the union. The strikes spread to almost 20 factories in seven different cities, and Türk Metal lost between 10 and 15 percent of its membership.

But all this is very new, and the new generation of working-class activists is very inexperienced. It isn't very clear where the movement will go, but the level of activity will undoubtedly rise. All the workers who went on strike or occupied their factories say that they've had enough of the propaganda about remaining quiet to try to avoid economic crisis, and that they want workers to get their fair share from the country's economic growth.

As for the situation on the left, no organization on the left recruited significantly during the Gezi protests. On the contrary, the biggest left organization, the Communist Party, split into two over questions about Gezi and organizing, and became much weaker.

Many other organizations are also in crisis because they didn't understand Gezi in the context I tried to set out above. Not splitting clearly from Kemalism, the official state ideology, has led these organization to understand Gezi as a repetition of anti-Islamic hostility to the AKP. When they don't arrive at the logical conclusions that flow from an accurate analysis, they lose support or split.

The success of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) in the June election gives hope about the future of the left.

The HDP is a coalition of the radical left and the Kurdish movement. The Kurdish parties used to have a support of 6.5 percent of the popular vote at their peak. A year ago, their presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş made progress by winning almost 10 percent. And now in the June elections, their previous vote has doubled to 13 percent.

In achieving this, the popular Demirtaş defended a strong line against the AKP without siding with Kemalists. The HDP gained most of its new votes--something like three-quarters--from Kurdish people across the country who turned away from voting AKP because the government abandoned the peace process and took a very hostile stance against Syrian Kurds in Kobanê. But the HDP also used rhetoric that was very sympathetic to a young generation of Gezi activists.

My organization, DSIP, supported and campaigned for the HDP in these elections. Our main slogan was "No to the AKP's neoliberalism, no to the CHP's Kemalism." We think that the way forward against the AKP is to oppose the CHP on equal terms as much as possible, and stand for democratic rights in order to win votes and support from the base of the AKP, which is where the poorest sections of Turkish society and the largest bloc of the working classes remain.

There is a tendency inside the left internationally to see the HDP as connected to the rise of leftwing parties in Europe, like SYRIZA or Podemos. This is very understandable, but not entirely correct. After all, the HDP is a party dominated by the Kurdish national movement, and the motivation behind it is very different. Its policies are shaped by the dynamics of Kurdish struggle throughout the Middle East.

We support the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination and give them unconditional support. But we also believe that the working classes in the western parts of Turkey need a new political alternative.

TURKEY HAS become a key player in the conflict in Syria, in particular through its attempts to repress Kurdish bids for autonomy. The U.S. successfully pressured the Turkish government to allow it to use its bases to carry out air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Turkish government seems determined to prove its credentials as a sub-imperial power in the region. What is your assessment of this development?

TURKEY HAS already been involved in the Syrian war in many ways. The AKP is one of the foreign forces that helped the Syrian revolution become a sectarian civil war by intervening in Syria for its own interests, supporting some of the rebel groups to increase Turkish influence in the region.

The Turkish government wasn't very keen to be part of the international coalition set up last year by the U.S. The U.S. line put the emphasis on fighting ISIS rather than the regime. The AKP, on the other hand, has been insisting that fighting the Assad regime should be the priority.

The latest bombings came after an agreement between Obama and Erdoğan. The AKP conceded a bit and joined in the fight against ISIS. Obama also conceded a bit and let Erdoğan bomb the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose military wing is active in Syria and Iraq, as well as Turkey.

This agreement means an attempt to reverse what happened in Kobanê last year, when the U.S. sidelined Turkey to drop weapons for Kurdish forces and build an alliance with them in the fight against ISIS. This proves once again that U.S. imperialism can abandon any oppressed group if its interests are at stake.

Kobanê was a very crucial battle, and we all understand the humanitarian crisis. But imperialism always try to exploit such crises to intervene militarily and boost its political influence in a region. Being connected to imperialism poses the danger of being isolated from united struggles for freedom in the Middle East.

The AKP has also been involved in the "train and equip" project with the U.S., which aims to strengthen "moderate" rebel groups in Syria--"moderate" meaning those that serve U.S. interests. This project ended in a humiliating defeat when the rebels were immediately captured and killed by al-Nusra when they entered Syria to fight.

Turkey is a sub-imperialist power in the Middle East and is therefore trying to intervene in the political process. But it still doesn't have the power to act on its own in a country like Syria. When the U.S. was planning to invade Iraq in 2003, the Turkish antiwar movement stopped Turkey's participation. Erdoğan was very upset then and said that Turkey was left "out of the game." He doesn't want it to happen again.

WHERE DO you see the Kurdish situation going next?

IN THE last month, the war has included clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army, but it hasn't been an all-out contest.

There was the air strikes in the Qandil region in northern Iraq, which is the main base of Kurdish fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. But everybody knows that these kinds of attacks have never worked. Furthermore, Erdoğan and AKP leaders have said that they put the peace negotiations "in the refrigerator"--meaning that they will be taken out again at some point.

So the war won't last forever. At some point, they'll return to the table and resume negotiations. It's because the Kurdish movement is much more stronger compared to the past and very visible to Turkish society that attacking the PKK is no solution for the AKP. Two-thirds of the Turkish population is still standing firm behind the negotiations process.

What's happening now is a test of forces between the government and the Kurdish movement. The government also aims to avoid the danger of a second Kurdish state or an autonomous region just across its borders.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives