Turkey Elections: Erdogan Victory or Increasing Polarisation?

The Turkish local elections that took place on 30 March 2014 were billed as a clear victory for Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

AKP, as it is known by its Turkish initials, won the mayoralty in the two main cities, Istanbul and Ankara, and received 45.6 percent of the total votes in an almost 6.8 percent improvement compared to the last local elections. However compared with the general elections of 2011, the AKP lost 4.2 percent from the 49.8 percent of the votes they received there. In fact, a closer look at the results around the country the victory of the AKP does not look so rosy: what we are witnessing in Turkey is a process of political crisis and social polarisation which will prepare the ground for a stormy period of class struggle in the future.

The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is seen as a secular and more left-wing alternative to the conservative and Islamist AKP, also improved its vote. It got 25.6 percent, an increase of 2.5 percent compared to the 2011 local elections and more or less the same as the previous general election.

In the Kurdish-populated areas of the southeast, the left-wing Kurdish nationalist Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Which is seen as the continuation of the outlawed Democratic Society Party, did strongly. It won outright in eight provinces and most importantly it, or independent candidates promoted by the party, gained a majority in three provinces which were previously dominated by the AKP. The newly-established People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had a pact with the BDP and ran in other areas of the country and received 1.9 percent of the total votes.

The far­right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also saw a slight increase of votes from 16.1 percent to 17.6.

Thus we see that the real picture is not one of outright victory by the AKP, but one of increased polarisation. This is further confirmed if we look at details of the results. AKP’s win is mostly based on the main swathe of Anatolia which includes many of the more rural parts of the country. Most of the more developed provinces of the West were won strongly by CHP, as was also the case in a few of the more industrial Black Sea provinces such as the mining-strong Zonguldak.

In the main cities, such as Istanbul and Ankara, especially the latter, the AKP won only by a very narrow margin. The Ankara vote might have even been settled by rigging on the part of the incumbent AKP. Again, many of the mainstays of more urban areas voted strongly against the AKP with CHP winning with 76.35% in Besiktas, 72.44% in Kadikoy and 61.53% in the Sisli neighbourhoods of Istanbul.

Erodgan’s Base and Position

taksim mtmsphotoflickrThe elections were the first ones to come after the historic revolt that shook Turkey in July 2013. Starting from a mainly student  and youth based protest in Istanbul’s Gezi park, the movement went on to include demonstrations in 80 out of the 81 provinces and a two-day partial general strike organised by the two smaller trade union federations. According to the estimates of Erdogan’s own Interior Ministry, more than three and a half million people came out, in many places openly fighting with the police and thugs who supported the government. Other sources say that throughout the 22 days 7.5 million people came out in Istanbul alone. Thousands were injured and 15 lost their lives at the hands of the government.

turkey-protestThe movement did not have a clear plan, a programme or proper organisations for it to win the struggle. However Erdogan was not strong enough to fully crush it either. In the end Erdogan came out victorious, but had to pay for the victory with a major political crisis.

The AKP has always been based on some of the most reactionary trends in Turkish politics. On the one had it rests of a wing of the big capitalists which broke with the secular Kemalist bourgeois and the CHP in pursuit of more 'free market' policies such as deregulation and privatisation.  On the other hand it rests on the Islamist bourgeoisie which aimed to take back some of the social gains won by the masses over the past 50 years.

But since 2002 it has enjoyed massive electoral success because it ruled while the economy was growing and GDP per capita was increasing significantly (Although this grow was very unequally distributed amongst the population). A new layer of the middle class supported the AKP government for its ‘pragmatism,’ i.e. for its overseeing of an economy that was booming, mostly on the basis of an unsustainable construction bubble and a speculative inflow of Foreign Direct Investments and for its alleged successful marriage of ‘mild’ Islamism that would keep the ‘pious’ electorate happy in a pro-EU, pro-west direction. So much so that after the outbreak of the Arab revolutions in 2011, many Western liberals were hoping for the fellow ‘mild’ Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood parties in the Arab world to come to power, promising a ‘Turkish model’ of bourgeois democracies.

After Erdogan’s brutal suppression of the July 2013 movement not many people are raising such proposals anymore!

After the defeat the Gezi revolt, Erdogan went on to solidify his position by further attacks on democratic rights. The result is an acute crisis of his regime and a massive social polarisation, the likes of which Turkey hasn’t seen for more than a decade.

Many elements inside Erdogan's party became critical of Erdogan and were ready to dump him. Some also planned to sabotage Erdogan's plans for becoming president under a new constitution which would grant him many more powers than the current, mainly ceremonial, head of state enjoys. Abdullah Gul, the current president, represents some of these elements - he has carefully criticised many moves by Erdogan while stopping short of denouncing him.

More importantly though, an open break has occurred between Erdogan and Hizmet, a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a capitalist-cleric in self-exile in rural Pennsylvania. Gulen, who is the guru of an Islamist reformist trend that owns an empire of schools all over Turkey and the world, was an important partner of Erdogan throughout his rise to power.

It was with Gulen’s help that the prime minister was able to purge the army, judiciary and the state from the traditional elements that had led successive coups in previous decades and to replace them with reliable elements. Gulen basically provided Erdogan with the cadres that his party lacked. Now we are witnessing a break between the two who have publicly attacked one another with Gulen calling Erdogan a corrupt tyrant and Erdogan calling his erstwhile guru a tool of Zionism and US imperialism. 

The clearest outbreak of this rift was on 17 December 2013. The state prosecutors, who are under the influence of Gulenists, went directly for the AKP government. Four government ministers along with their sons and a host of capitalists, were indicted for having engaged in graft and bribery. A steamy and riveting story was revealed that showed links between the Turkish government, ‘pious’ businessmen and Iranian regime-linked tycoons bent on escaping the Western-imposed sanctions. Since then more has been revealed including voice recordings that caught no other than Erdogan himself red-handed, discussing embezzlement plans with his son. It is rumoured that video recordings are to follow.

To the list of embarrassments we should add the disastrous policy that Erdogan has followed in Syria. Banking on a swift victory for the opposition, it quickly came to a head with the Assad government. Erdogan became the main backer of forces opposing Assad, helping to bankroll some of the most reactionary outfits there. The state of its regional relations couldn’t be any more disastrous. Erdogan’s foreign minister, Davotuglu, used to boast that his government had “zero problems with neighbours”. As the latest joke has it, they now have “zero neighbours without problems!”

Despite all this Erdogan, has proved to be not one to easily accept defeat. He has been fighting tooth-and-nail for his position against the ever-growing opposition from all the progressive swathes of the population and from inside his own ranks. He went on to declare a ban on Twitter and YouTube (the former already being overturned by the constitutional court) before the elections. This clearly indicates the reactionary direction in which he is moving.

The election results prove that he can still count on a significant base of support but also that the Gezi park movement has left a mark in the form of a developing political and economic crisis. The so-called happy days of a harmonious society with the AKP at the helm and on-and-off demonstrations here and there are over. The turbulence that Turkish society is so familiar with is coming back.

The Opposition

The main reason why the AKP is still in power is the lack of an effective opposition that could unite the progressive sections of society to oust it. CHP, a direct descendant of the party founded by Kemal Ataturk, has been seen as a more left-wing and secularist alternative to Erdogan in the recent period. It has solidified its position, emerging as the main opposition force. Many of the best elements of workers and youth, bent on defeating Erdogan, have been attracted to its ranks.

However, it missed the chance of offering an effective alternative by sullying itself with a de-facto alliance with the Gulenist bourgeoisie. Instead of breaking with the Western-oriented, ‘secular’ bourgeoisie that has compromised and collaborated with Erdogan in the last 10 years, CHP went on to add another bourgeois wing to its allies.

(Interestingly enough, the capitalists in Turkey are quite organised in their politics. The MUSIAD confederation generally stands for AKP, TUSKON for Gulenists and the TUSIAD for the traditionally West-oriented and Kemalist bourgeoisie. The latter two gave support to CHP in the elections).

At the same time the CHP engaged in a close alliance with the far-right nationalists MHP. But this meant that politically, in the eyes of large layers of society who are indignant at the pro-capitalist policies of the AKP, the CHP did not appear as an alternative. On the contrary it was linked to the semi-fascist methods of the MHP and its right-wing anti working class policies. This meant that the influence of CHP remained limited and it failed to mobilise the forces that rocked the country in last year’s summer.

The Turkish left didn’t fare much better either. Any student of Turkish history knows of the rich history of working-class and communist struggle that this country has seen. Today, there are tens of thousands of activists working in an alphabet soup of ‘revolutionary organisations’ that are unfortunately mired in sectarianism and thus unable to offer an alternative to the broader swathes of Turkish society.

In this election many of the far-left groups gathered around the platform of the newly-established HDP which ran in many areas that the BDP wasn’t running in. The nearly one-million votes that it got shows the potential that a leftist option can have but HDP’s campaign was a disaster from many standpoints.

Instead of focusing on bread-and-butter issues and a sharply-focused platform that could have offered it as a genuine alternative to the capitalist parties, it mostly focused on the issues of minority or LGBT rights. While these are important issues that Marxists generally support, they are not enough to build a social force capable of effectively changing society. The HDP's methods of quotas (10 percent of all candidates had to be LGBT and 50 percent women) are a tried-and-tested tokenistic approach which alienate it from working class people whose main problems of wages, jobs, housing and inequality was not addressed properly.

In addition, the far-left organisations usually take a sectarian attitude to the rank-and-file of the CHP and Kemalists. The political tradition which was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was in its inception an anti-communist bourgeois movement which murdered many communists. However, Ataturk’s Republicans People's Party also played an important part in the modernisation of Turkey. In the 60's and 70's the party became a focal point for a general swing to the left and played a key part in the intense class struggles of the period.

Thus the CHP is a hybrid remnant of Turkey's Kemalist and contradiction ridden past. On the one hand it is supported by the Turkish big bourgeoisie and its different factions which are largely in control of the party apparatus and on the other hand it is has deep roots amongst large layers of the Turkish masses, who remember it as a rallying point for their past struggles and who see it as the party which pulled Turkey out of backwardness. For communists it is important to recognise this fact and to approach the supporters of Kemalism with a patient attitude, of course without giving any political consessions. Refusing to accept this fact means that the left, by acting aggressively and arrogantly towards the Kemalist tradition, often isolates itself from large parts of the working class and the youth who would otherwise be open to radical ideas.

The Road Ahead

There are those pessimists who always moan and cry about reaction and fascism. They will be pointing to the election results as a sign of a triumph for reaction. They couldn’t be any more wrong!

As we have explained, Erdogan’s victory happened because of a lack of a coherent alternative. What the results really demonstrated was a society which is being polarised.

In 2011, when Turkey had the fastest growing economy in Europe, growing by almost 8.5 percent, the richest 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people accounted for almost half of national income. The poorest 20 percent had just 6 percent.

On top of this the tax system is designed to benefit the rich. Two-thirds of state revenues are from indirect taxes such as an 18 percent sales tax on most goods and services. However luxury goods such as clothing and caviar are only taxed 8 percent while some precious stones are not taxed at all. The consumption of the rich is barely taxed at all whereas the poor have to pay a heavy tax for their basic necessities.

As Turkish capitalism sinks deeper into crisis these contradictions will reveal themselves as the basis of intense class struggle. A clear indication of what is coming could be seen a couple of weeks before the vote.

Berkin Elvan, the 14-year-old boy who was shot in the head by the police during last year’s revolt (while he was buying bread for his family) died on 11 March, after 269 days in a coma. An angry crowd of up to a million protesters filled the streets of Istanbul to protest about this. According to the police’s own estimates, more than 2 million people came out in 53 of 81 provinces.

This is the real mood of Turkish society. It also shows that none of the issues which caused the Gezi park movement have been solved. However as there is no organisation to properly channel this mood - which also explains the election results - the process will be a protracted one. Last year's movement was the opening shots and although Erdogan survived, a deep political and economic crisis has engulfed the country.

This instability and the violent shifts at the top is undermining the legitimacy of the whole regime. At a certain stage this crisis will reflect back on the class struggle. While the tops are openly fighting over who gets to loot the state, the masses are being asked to shoulder the weight of the crisis.

The most crucial force for change is Turkey’s strong working-class. It is the decisive factor in the situation. When it flexes its muscles, society trembles. Let us not forget that it was the organised power of workers that overthrew the long-lasting dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia.

The working class needs to place itself at the head of the anti-Erdogan movement and offer a socialist alternative. Only with this methods and direction can Erdogan be successfully overthrown.