The left advances in Turkey’s election

June 18, 2015

Tom Gagné and Alan Maass analyze the outcome of Turkey's general elections.

FOR SEVERAL consecutive nights last week, Kurds celebrated with fireworks and demonstrations in the city of Diyarbakır, the center of Kurdistan in Turkey, following the strong showing of the People's Democracy Party (HDP), an alliance of pro-Kurdish and left-wing political forces, in the June 7 general elections.

The HDP won 13.1 percent of the vote across the country, easily surpassing the 10 percent threshold for a political party to win seats in parliament. For Kurds, who have suffered political repression, economic oppression and the brunt of a civil war for decades, the HDP's success was an important step forward.

The HDP's success came at the expense of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan--and that is also something to celebrate, not only for Kurds, but anyone who cares about democracy and justice in Turkey.

The AKP's share of the vote dropped from just under 50 percent in the last election to 40.9 percent this time. It still won the most votes of any party, but because the HDP has qualified for seats in parliament by getting over the 10 percent mark, the AKP was denied an outright majority in parliament.

Co-chairs of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş (left) and Figen Yüksekdağ
Co-chairs of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş (left) and Figen Yüksekdağ

There are no obvious partners for a coalition government--the other two parties in the new parliament will be the secular nationalist Republican People's Party, which dominated Turkish politics, often under one-party rule and backed by the military, until the rise of the AKP, and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party. If no arrangement that can command a parliamentary majority is negotiated, new elections will be called.

Even if the AKP does lead the next government, Erdoğan and his party won't have the super-majority of seats needed to proceed with plans to rewrite the country's constitution. Were they able to do this, the AKP would have made the political system even more authoritarian--a recreation of the Ottoman Empire, with Erdoğan as a latter-day "caliph," as HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş stated during the election campaign.

There are many problems with the current constitution--it was written by a cabal of generals during the dictatorship of the 1980s--not least of which is the absurdly high threshold of 10 percent of the vote for a party to win representation in parliament. But the AKP proposals would have given draconian powers to the presidency, turning the symbolic position that Erdoğan won in a presidential election last year into the domineering role he has maintained over the past decade as prime minister at the head of AKP governments.


IN THE months before the election, the HDP faced a ruthless campaign of violence and intimidation. A Turkish human rights group documented 176 attacks on party supporters or facilities, including seven involving shootings, five bombings and four arson attacks. Just days before the election, two bombs went off in the midst of an HDP rally in Diyarbakır featuring Demirtaş. Three people died and hundreds were injured.

For the HDP to endure this and score an unprecedented success of putting 80 representatives in the new parliament was testament to the commitment of party leaders and activists and the determination of its supporters. But the HDP's showing is also a reflection of the growing discontent with Erdoğan and the AKP, which have made it clear that they care nothing about democracy in Turkey.

The AKP, a center-right party with roots in political Islamism, came to power in elections in 2001 and was widely viewed as a step forward from the longstanding political supremacy of the military in Turkey. But the AKP's populist image has grown tarnished, especially in the last two years.

In the spring of 2013, Erdoğan called in heavily militarized police to crack down on a small, peaceful occupation to protect Gezi Park in central Istanbul. One of the last remaining green spaces in the metropolitan area, Gezi was slated to be bulldozed in the latest "urban renewal" project overseen by the AKP in its drive to "develop" Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.

The crackdown sparked mass protests that spread across Istanbul and then around the country. The demonstrations were a lightning rod for other grievances with the AKP and its neoliberal policies, which have massively increased inequality--the richest 1 percent of Turkey's population now own 54 percent of the country's wealth, up from 39 percent when the AKP came to power 14 years ago. Gezi Park was the epicenter of what became known as the "Turkish Spring."

The following year, protests in response to revelations of corruption involving top AKP officials, with close connections to Erdoğan, threatened a repeat of the Gezi upsurge. A few months later, when an explosion and underground fire in a coal mine in Soma in the western province of Manisa killed 301 miners, the government's callous and negligent behavior further alienated working people.

Then came Erdoğan's cruelty toward the plight of the Kurds of Kobanê, under attack by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters just miles away from Turkey's southern border. Even as ISIS forces pounded the city with heavy weapons--U.S.-made ones captured during the Islamists' conquests in northern Iraq--Turkish tanks stood idle, and Turkish border troops prevented Kurds from reaching Kobanê to help in the defense of the city.

When Erdoğan declared that U.S.-led air strikes against ISIS were of no use because Kobanê was "about to fall," masses of Kurds took to the streets to express their outrage at what they viewed as the AKP's tacit support for ISIS fighters in their war on the Kurds of Syria.

All of this ate away at electoral support for the AKP. The party lost votes among a wing of Kurds who grew disillusioned with Erdoğan's on-again, off-again commitment to negotiations with Kurdish leaders, and then embittered by the inaction about Kobanê.

Even more significant, the HDP won support in non-Kurdish areas--including more than 10 percent of the vote in Istanbul and other cities--among working class and middle class voters radicalized by the Gezi Park revolt and looking to register their support for a party that stands for democracy.

In light of the party's embarrassing electoral setback, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu faces the question of whether to try to form a coalition government or call new elections. He also faces a challenging political split between the party's two founders--Erdoğan, in typical boorish fashion, will put pressure on Davutoğlu to call elections, while former President Abdullah Gül is calling for compromise and a coalition government.

There is talk about the other three parties represented in parliament--the HDP, CHP and MHP--coming together in a coalition government. But its only point of unity would be opposition to the AKP and the dismantling of the authoritarian forms that Erdoğan has built around himself. In fact, Devlet Bahçeli of the far-right nationalist MHP has explicitly ruled out any alliance involving the MHP.


HOW DID the HDP emerge as the bright newcomer in Turkish politics?

Its base is among Kurds, an oppressed nationality spread over Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey, where they account for around 20 percent of the population. But the HDP also attracted a section of the radical left and secular moderates outside Kurdish areas, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, such as Yazidis and Armenians. According to Turkish socialists, representatives of the radical left will account for nearly 20 of the HDP's 80 members of parliament.

The HDP embraced socialists, feminists, LBGT activists and other parts of the radical left. Led by the charismatic Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the party has quotas to make sure women candidates and LGBT candidates are represented. Demirtaş slammed Erdoğan after he attacked the HDP for running openly LGBT candidates, declaring that the president's "humiliation of people for their sexual orientation was very ugly."

Last November, when Erdoğan declared, "You cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different," Yüksekdağ fired back: "In the 21st century, one mentality says, 'Women and men are not equal, this is against their nature.' The other sells women at slave bazaars." This was an explicit comparison of the AKP government with ISIS.

In the aftermath of the heated election, the Turkish and international media will highlight Erdoğan's surprising loss and the concerns of financial markets after a decade of "stability" under the AKP. However, the emergence of the HDP highlights other important dynamics inside Turkey and in the surrounding regions that will last beyond the election.

First of all, the HDP's breakthrough represents a step forward for the Kurdish population and the potential for more advances to come.

For decades, the Kurds have remained oppressed within Turkey, with little or no legal access to education in their native language and to their cultural heritage, for example. A civil war that began in the early 1980s between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which sought to liberate Kurds through an armed struggle, took a catastrophic toll in southeastern Turkey, with as many as 30,000 killed.

Erdoğan and the AKP were able to win some support among Kurds by participating in negotiations with the PKK that ended the civil war, but a serious left-wing representation in parliament whose sympathies lie with the oppressed will do more for advancing peace than all the carefully calculated gestures that Erdoğan has made.

Second, the HDP speaks to a generation of people across Turkey who have felt disenfranchised for much of their lives. As Turkish socialist Uraz Aydın wrote for International Viewpoint:

The victory of the HDP is an indisputable victory for all the oppressed people of Turkey, for women first and foremost, for workers, the LGBTI, ethnic and religious minorities, the young and so on. A reformist party of the left advocating a "radical democracy," the HDP has succeeded in forming a hegemonic pole for those wishing to oppose the autocratic regime of Erdoğan. However, it should be added that this political convergence at the electoral level would not be possible without the experience of the revolt of Gezi, where citizens of different political viewpoints saw the need to unite against a common enemy--and also that they were able to unite, to fight together, side by side.

Third, the HDP success forecasts a new confidence in the potential for an ethnically united class struggle against the authoritarian establishment, led an AKP government that has denied genocide, locked up countless journalists and union organizers, and violently repressed democratic assembly and dissent, all in order to make Turkey a safe haven for neoliberal capitalism.

As Demirtaş said at a combined press conference and celebration rally in Istanbul:

Those who support freedom, democracy and peace won this election. Those who consider themselves the sole owners of Turkey lost. This victory is the collective victory of Armenians, Bosnians, Ezidis, Circassians, of all ethnic identities, of workers, of the unemployed, of villagers, shop owners, of all those whose labor is being exploited. This victory is the collective victory of those who want a democratic civilian constitution in this country, of those who stand against the September 12 military coup constitution and the election threshold it imposed. This victory is the victory of those who want peace in the Kurdish question. And more than anything, this victory is the collective victory of women.

We stand for everything we said in squares and rallies. The HDP is now truly a party of the whole of Turkey.

In this respect, the HDP's rise is connected to the successes of the radical left party SYRIZA in Greece and Podemos in Spain. The political circumstances that gave rise to each of these groups are different, which gives each different roots. But the HDP's breakthrough on June 7 shows the potential for uniting political forces intent on battling neoliberalism and who want to put the radical left back in the spotlight.

No one can be certain what comes of the political maneuvering now to try to put together a new government, but whatever the outcome, the HDP's success has cast a spotlight on the declining popularity of the AKP and the ruling class it represents--and opened up a new chapter in the struggle from below against neoliberalism and repression.

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