Turkey: the Erdoğan regime is living on borrowed time

The economic crisis gripping Turkey has pushed the Turkish ruling class into a political crisis. Splits and divisions are opening up in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its electoral partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). These events are a harbinger of revolution.

As the crisis deepens, the ruling AKP is continuing its decline in the polls, but the opposition parties aren't rising in the polls. This reveals the radicalisation taking place within Turkish society and the fact that the masses are looking for a way out of the crisis of the system, yet have no confidence in any of the political parties.

In the early days of his rule, Erdoğan solidified his electoral support on the basis of economic growth. It was this that gave him a long winning streak. But those days are now in the distant past. Erdoğan is now desperately looking for ways to ensure his survival. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is proving unable to capitalise on his decline, and although it has formed a six-party alliance to bring an end to Erdoğan's nearly 20-year rule, it is still struggling to attract enough voters to win the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023.

For years now, Turkish capitalism has been staggering from one crisis to another. As the economy was reeling from the economic collapse of 2018, the world economic crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Then came the war in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has created a major energy shock to the Turkish economy, which imports nearly all of its energy needs. This, in turn, is fueling inflation. While official inflation figures were expected to reach 60 percent by May-June, soaring energy prices have already pushed official inflation above this level. The official Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) puts the rate of inflation at 69.97 percent. But the Inflation Research Group (ENAG), an independent organisation, calculates it at 156.86 percent. For further analysis of the deep and worsening economic crisis Turkey is mired in, click here.

Protests

The collapse of living standards has sparked protests against price hikes throughout Turkey as the masses demand they be rolled back. Anger against the regime is accumulating and there are constant protests drawing in all layers in society.

Most of the protests against the price hikes have been spontaneous as the masses erupt onto the streets in their neighbourhoods. Others have been organised by unions and community organisations under the slogan ‘Geçinemiyoruz’ which means ‘We can't get by’ in Turkish. The protests have been accompanied by the burning of energy bills as the masses shout out: “We will not pay” and “Cengiz can pay the bills”, a reference to one of the energy companies that had billions in taxes written off.

Previously people were afraid to speak out against Erdoğan fearing legal repercussions. The regime had created an atmosphere of fear where anti-Erdoğan statements on social media could land you in prison, and even school children were arrested for speaking ill of the president in their lunch breaks. Yet now there is an outpouring of anger against him and the AKP regime.

The demonstrations are filled with anti-AKP slogans as the masses shout: “We are sick and fed up with the AKP”. The attacks on living standards are leading to a growing understanding of the nature of capitalism. The masses march with placards that read: “Those who created the crisis should pay”. One protester who spoke shouted: “Either we will accept to live in the cold and dark for the profits of a handful of companies who are trying to make us pay for the crisis or we will tear up these bills!”

The crisis has brought with it an awakening of the working class. The country has seen the biggest wave of strikes since the 1970s, when Turkey was in the midst of its biggest revolutionary movement. A massive strike wave swept through the country in January through to March, as workers in all sectors of the economy participated in strike action. There were at least 108 strikes in the first two months of 2022 across Turkey, including in the strongholds of the AKP.

In Gaziantep, an AKP stronghold, there were more than 30 strikes in the course of six weeks, with more than 12,000 workers participating. A majority of these strikes erupted spontaneously, without any trade union organisation. Workers have drawn many lessons in the course of their fight: that they are essential to the production process; that they have the power to shut down their workplaces and the profits of the bosses; and that their strength comes from their numbers and unity. Workers are uniting their struggles under campaigns, and the drive towards the trade unions has accelerated, as workers look to get organised to fight the attacks. As inflation continues to soar, workers are demanding new collective agreements. Başaran Aksu, Coordinator of Umut-Sen, said in an interview:

“Even workers who vote for the AKP and MHP [the AKP’s coalition partner] do not believe the announcements made by the TÜİK but rather what is said in opposition media. […] That is why workers want to sign new agreements and have their wages reassessed. Otherwise, they have no way to stay alive”.

A new round of collective agreement contract negotiations are set to start, which will unleash a new wave of strikes that may well put the last one in the shade.

Since last autumn, university students have been protesting against soaring rent prices and access to public dormitories. The Barınamıyoruz (‘We Can't Find Shelter’) protests started in Istanbul and quickly spread to universities nationally: from the western province Çanakkale, to the southeastern Kurdish province, Diyarbakir. The regime has responded with repression, arresting thousands of students. It still has not been able to suppress the movement, however.

In April, pensioners from across the country marched to Ankara, the capital, demanding an increase in pensions and the reversal of price hikes. Pensioners have marched to parliament multiple times and have organised protests throughout the crisis. The pensioners hurled their anger at the regime on their way with their slogans: “Take back the unbearable price hikes! Price hikes, torture, this is the AKP! We will not surrender to the AKP”. And they pointed to a growing understanding of uniting their struggles with labour: “Long live the solidarity of labour!”

Spontaneous protests by farmers have also erupted across the country, with farmers blocking highways and roads with their tractors, protesting the price hikes to energy and production costs. As protests grew, farmers across the country united and marched to Ankara to raise their demands. Most of these farmers are from AKP strongholds and would tend to be conservative, but their conditions are leading to a rise in consciousness. One farmer in Gaziantep spoke with a Youtuber saying: “50 kilograms of fertiliser has become 400 million liras. Does religion feed us? We are all Muslim, but religion is one thing, politics is another. […] I follow the money in my pocket, not Tayyip, or Kılıçdaroğlu. People are hungry, people live in poverty” and ended his speech with: “Long live socialism, long live revolution”.

The basis of Erdoğan’s rule

Erdoğan’s handling of the economic crisis has only led to a further erosion of his base. Consecutive interest rate cuts in the autumn sent the currency into freefall. The Turkish lira ended last year with a 45 percent loss in its value. Erdoğan has attempted to frame the crisis as a “war of independence” and has accused the opposition, which are demanding interest rate hikes to tackle inflation, of “wanting to attack his government” and of “fear-mongering”

The truth is, Erdoğan is trying to evade a social explosion. Raising interest rates in the debt-saddled economy will trigger an explosion of bankruptcies, which would wipe out his regime. There have already been over 25 million bankruptcies since last year, 2.3 million of them since the beginning of 2022. But keeping rates low to keep the economy afloat fuels inflation, thus eroding wages. This has led to unrest by another route, which also threatens the regime.

inflation Image Trading EconomicsOfficial figures put the rate of inflation at 69.97 percent, but other estimates put it as high as 156.86 percent / Image: Trading Economics

In the meantime, the Erdoğan regime managed to stabilise the lira by depleting the central bank's foreign currency reserves, and by introducing deposit protection schemes and targeting “gold under the mattress” in December and January. Erdoğan has placed his bets on cheap Turkish exports, hoping that they will generate enough foreign income (including from tourism) to fill the country’s current account deficit, in turn stabilising the currency and bringing inflation down. While his plan wasn’t sustainable, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has brought it to an abrupt halt as the country is heavily reliant on Russian energy, trade and tourists, as well as Ukrainian grain and tourists. Turkey’s gas import bill alone is expected to reach $40 billion this year which dwarfs the central bank’s $15.96 billion net reserves. This is compounded by oil and grain prices which have also soared as a result of the war.

Erdoğan is now desperately seeking cash and investors. The government is now forcing exporters to sell 40 percent of their foreign currency earnings to the central bank, up from 25 percent in January when the measure was announced. The measure has also been applied to the tourism sector too.

The regime is left with depleted foreign currency reserves and a very large external debt. In addition, Erdoğan’s ‘unorthodox’ interest rate policy has resulted in capital flight, exacerbated by the fact that the advanced nations are pulling out their foreign investments as the world economic crisis bites. Try as he might, Erdoğan cannot defy the laws of capitalism. But even if he goes, whoever replaces him will be faced with the same crisis.

Despite the fact that the country is plagued by crises, the upcoming elections scheduled for June 2023 have failed to arouse any enthusiasm for any of the political options.

The ruling AKP and its far-right ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are polling in the 25 percent and 5 range percent, respectively. This gives them a combined projected vote in the range of 31 percent, which is not nearly enough to clear the 51 percent threshold required to elect a president or to form a government in parliament.

Splits in the ruling class

Erdoğan first turned to the MHP to court the nationalist vote in 2015 after losing his majority in parliament. But he quickly became dependent on their support to remain in power.

When Erdoğan rose to power in a landslide victory in 2002, he was able to sustain his popularity and increase his support base as the Turkish economy grew on the back of a world economic boom. Turkey was able to weather the world economic crisis of 2008, but the Turkish economy became heavily reliant on speculative growth and the reckoning came in 2013.

Economic growth slowed down, inflation and unemployment started to rise and the currency began its decline. The regime’s attacks on the living standards of the masses over the course of these crises has exposed the class nature of the Erdoğan regime, and steadily eroded its base. This process has been accelerated by the crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While millions have been pushed into poverty to pay for the crisis, between November 2020 and November 2021, over 181,000 new millionaires were created in Turkey. The opulent life of Erdoğan and the ruling class and its contrast with widespread and growing poverty is creating an atmosphere of class anger that is driving political polarisation.

Over the years, as Erdoğan’s base has eroded and his regime has weakened, he has had to tighten his control over the state apparatus in order to secure political stability, in the process removing any sign of opposition within his own party. He has purged state and social institutions and replaced those purged with AKP loyalists. He has curtailed democratic rights and freedoms to further stabilise his weakening regime. Erdoğan further consolidated power in his hands with the constitutional referendum in 2017. These are signs of weakness. And far from strengthening his rule, they have only further undermined it by sapping the regime of its legitimacy.

The discontent with the direction of the country under Erdoğan began seeping into the party itself. Two founding members of the AKP, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, split from the AKP over the party’s direction, forming their own parties – the Future Party (GP), and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA).

As the economic crisis deepens it is putting pressure on the various wings of the ruling class, and this tension is causing political divisions and splits. According to the Yeniçağ newspaper, 40 sitting AKP parliamentarians are in talks with the GP, as well as 20 former AKP parliamentarians.

Selçuk Özdağ, deputy minister of the GP, reports that the ministers think the “AKP is being mismanaged”. There are reports that the “AKP is boiling” as the MPs are under immense pressure from their constituencies. Earlier this year, two AKP MPs left the AKP for Babacan’s DEVA Party.

The crisis is also leading to fractures within their right-wing allies, the MHP. Baki Ersoy, an MHP MP made headlines in April after disputing official inflation figures and speaking out against the price hikes. Ersoy was suspended but resigned from the party during his suspension. The day after Ersoy’s suspension, Sedat Bilinç, another MHP MP resigned from the party after showing support for Ersoy’s remarks stating that he had “received similar warnings” from the leadership for similar criticism. Now a third MP is speaking out in support of Ersoy's remarks as well.

According to a former MHP MP, the “Pandora’s Box” may have been opened at the MHP, as the party is now split from within: “Bahçeli's [leader of the MHP] unconditional support for Erdoğan is causing great discontent within the MHP.”

A further fracture in the ruling class has broken to the surface in the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), traditionally aligned with the Kemalist bourgeoisie and the opposition CHP. The TÜSİAD have moved away from the restrained warnings they issued in October and December demanding “the independence of regulatory and supervisory bodies” and for the AKP regime to obey “rules of economic science” after Erdoğan’s interest rate cuts sent the lira into free fall. In the wake of the mass protests that the crisis has ignited across the country, the business federation has put forward a ‘programme’.

At their General Assembly on 29 March, former president and board member, Tuncay Özilhan gave the first speech in which he directly responded to Erdoğan’s claims that “the economy will get better” saying:

“We do not have the luxury of acting on the assumption that ‘there is no possibility of encountering a new crisis’ and that “crisis, unpredictability, and instability have become our new normal.”

Özilhan then added:

“The criticisms we make are not personal, but political.”

In other words, their message to Erdoğan is, “this is just business – and, unfortunately, you have become a threat to our system.”

The protests erupting across the country against the price hikes. and above all the strike wave that swept across the country, is an extremely alarming development for the bourgeoisie. They are beginning to conclude that they need to get rid of Erdoğan – or else face a revolution by the masses. As the crisis intensifies, the pressure from below will widen these splits at the top. The tensions within the ruling class will increasingly burst to the surface as the bourgeoisie scrambles to deal with the working class and save their system.

The opposition (or lack thereof)

Despite the fact that support for the AKP is falling and the party is weakening, support for the opposition isn’t rising.

The main opposition party – the Kemalist CHP – has proved its bankruptcy and impotence once again in the face of this crisis. The leadership has not even attempted to put forward a real opposition to the AKP, and has reduced solving the economic crisis to “returning to the parliamentary system” and ending Erdoğan’s “one-man rule”. The CHP has been moving further and further to the right. The party has been running right-wing nationalist and religious candidates, and has even adopted Islamic rhetoric, moving it away from its ‘secular’ Kemalist roots to appeal to Erdoğan’s base. Its electoral partners are the Good Party (İYİ), which is a split from the far-right MHP; the Felicity Party (SP), an Islamist outfit; and the conservative Democratic Party (DP).

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu Image mynetiz pixabayThe reason the CHP and the other opposition parties cannot defeat the fragile AKP is because they have lost credibility in the eyes of the masses who do not trust them / Image: mynetiz pixabay

Even with the addition of the two splinter parties from the AKP, the DEVA and the GP, the party alliance cannot attract enough votes to win. The six parties are currently polling with a combined projected vote in the range of 40 percent – although much could change between now and 2023.

The Nation Alliance (the name of this CHP-led lash-up) produced a 48-page accord, but nowhere in the document was there a solution to the economic crisis crushing the masses. It states that once “the economic programme studies carried out by each party are finalised” that the “experts” from each party “will come together and draw up a common economic program from these studies”. What hollow words these are to the millions of people who are faced with hunger, poverty and unemployment! The document they have produced reveals how utterly disconnected they are from the suffering of the masses.

Amidst the currency crisis in the autumn, the party was pushed to mobilise the masses, announcing a programme of rallies. To the surprise of the CHP, their first rally drew in more than 20,000 people. But the prospect of drawing in thousands of people into mass mobilisation was so frightening for the CHP that they have refused to hold any further rallies. Kılıçdaroğlu has said “they would focus more on meeting with professional organisations, opinion leaders, non-governmental organisations and young people”.

The CHP has been attempting to direct the anger of the masses into safe channels. Kılıçdaroğlu (the CHP leader) is calling for the masses “not to protest on the streets” but rather he urges “citizens to go to the polls to change the ruling party”. While the CHP may disagree with Erdoğan’s policies, they are more afraid of sparking a movement that has the potential to escape their control and become a threat to their system. The economic crisis in Turkey did not stem from the presidential system nor did it stem from one-man rule, but from the crisis of Turkish capitalism.

The reason the CHP and the other opposition parties cannot defeat the fragile AKP is because they have lost credibility in the eyes of the masses who do not trust them. While many AKP supporters have turned against Erdoğan, they cannot find an alternative to turn to. A farmer who travelled from Aksaray for the rally told the Evrensel Daily: “It isn't about the AKP, CHP or Good Party anymore. From today on, it is about the bread party. I will vote for whoever saves me from hunger. I would even vote for HDP for this”.

The HDP

In this political climate, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the left-wing, Kurdish-based party, has the potential to become a viable opposition. The party has initiated a third alliance with other left and far-left parties. A genuine united front of all the left parties, based on a genuine socialist programme would galvanise the masses.

The HDP has raised important democratic demands: for national and religious freedoms; the struggle against women’s oppression; for justice and peace, etc. It has also introduced a number of bills into parliament that seek to address economic problems: demanding the minimum wage be increased every three months; 250kW of free electricity to every household; the elimination of student debt, and for student bursaries to be raised to 2,500 TL; for the government to cover half the price of diesel and fertiliser for farmers; and for the minimum pension to be fixed at 5,000 TL (a figure barely above the minimum wage, and below the “hunger line”).

hdp rally Image HDP TwitterIn the current climate, a genuine united front of all the left parties, based on a genuine socialist programme would galvanise the masses / Image: HDP, Twitter

The party has even introduced bills for the nationalisation of the energy companies and a law to audit politicians and others to ensure fair payments and the payment of taxes.

But at the same time as the HDP has placed before parliament these (albeit modest) proposals for reforms that would benefit the working class, it has simultaneously raised a hue and cry about… its exclusion from the CHP’s Nation Alliance! Indeed, the HDP has continued to insist that it would be willing to support the Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate, as long as agreement can be reached with the latter “on principles”.

Such an alliance would be an alliance with the class enemy, and talk of such has sparked a backlash among HDP members, some of whom have purportedly been silenced for speaking out against possible collaboration with the CHP on the Kurdish question.

If it continues down this path of collaboration with the so-called liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, the leadership will alienate the most radical and advanced layers.

There is suspicion that the HDP is seeking an agreement with some section or other of the ruling class on the Kurdish question. If they achieve agreement with the CHP on this question, a party that is prepared to temporarily compromise on the Kurdish question in exchange for the HDP’s acquiescence on social and economic questions will quickly turn around and betray them on the Kurds too, once they no longer have use for their political support. The Kurds have a bitter experience of this in how Erdogan himself has made political use of the Kurdish question, only to turn 180 degrees later.

The fact that the HDP has failed to give a lead to the massive strike wave that has swept the country seems to confirm the point that its leaders are trapped in the mindset of parliamentary deals. Whilst thousands of workers were walking out of the factories, the HDP limited itself to moving a bill in parliament calling for a three-monthly review of the minimum wage. Instead of pursuing parliamentary manoeuvres, the HDP should put forward class-based policies and mobilise the full force of the workers in the streets.

Marxists are not against promoting our ideas in parliament. It can be a useful tribune for awakening and mobilising the masses. But when the masses are on the move, exclusive focus on parliamentary games can confuse and demobilise the masses. Behind parliamentary democracy stands the power of the bosses and bankers, and no parliamentary manoeuvres can overcome this. The only way to achieve both the democratic and economic demands that the HDP proposes is to mobilise the masses for the fight to overthrow capitalism – for a revolution.

If the HDP becomes a pole of attraction for the most radical and advanced layers of society, it will be despite these limitations of its leadership. Were the HDP to adopt a class-based programme – connecting the fight for daily demands of the workers to the fight for socialism – it could easily cut across national lines and unite the Turkish and Kurdish working class, blowing away all the other parties in the process. None of the democratic demands raised by the HDP are achievable to any serious extent under a system in which the economic levers of power remain in the hands of a minority.

The threat of a united working class

As Erdoğan’s regime weakens, he is desperately looking for ways to hold on to power.

In a desperate move, the regime has reopened the case to ban the HDP. This would serve to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiment and divide the 6 million HDP voters. A party that can potentially unite the Turkish and Kurdish working class is a dangerous scenario for Turkish capitalism.

In another sign of desperation, the regime is trying to remain afloat through electoral manipulation. As the AKP and MHP are set to lose, the coalition partners recently pushed through electoral reforms, which reduce the threshold for a party to enter parliament from 10 percent to 7 percent. As well as ensuring their own survival, this would also serve to split and weaken the alliance of the opposition, in particular the two AKP splinter parties, which are taking votes from his base.

Behind the strongman image is a desperate man with a very weak regime who is running out of time and options. Erdoğan and the AKP regime can easily be overthrown, but as yet there is no alternative.

The crisis in Turkey is beginning to spiral out of control, a majority of the population has been pushed into poverty so that a minority of the rich can protect their profits and increase their wealth. There are no solutions to the problems the masses are confronted with under capitalism. There is only more suffering. The masses cannot wait until 2023. The Turkish working class has already started to move, and more and more layers are taking to the streets to fight back against the attacks of the ruling class. As the class struggle intensifies, more workers will be drawn into action. In the absence of a political alternative, the workers will likely turn to the trade union front and attempt to transform the trade unions into fighting organisations. But through the individual battles that will break out, the workers will instinctively come to revolutionary ideas.

It is necessary to give that emerging, instinctive understanding a conscious expression. This is the role of a revolutionary party, the construction of which is the most pressing question in Turkey today. We must build a party of the most class conscious elements that can explain how the only solution to the problems that the workers face is to take over the energy companies, major monopolies, and banks out of the hands of a minority of the rich and into their own hands. In short, only by overthrowing capitalism can we solve the problems faced by the masses in Turkey today.

The question is not if but when we will see a revolutionary explosion in Turkey. The situation in Sri Lanka is a glimpse into the future for Turkey. The masses have spilled onto the streets against unbearable conditions. The same conditions are being prepared in Turkey. But should such a situation emerge without a revolutionary organisation with a clear programme being present to guide it, the energy of the masses can dissipate, like steam without a piston box to contain it.

The Turkish working class, which is the largest and most powerful working class in the Middle East, has entered the scene and is preparing an almighty fightback, but it needs a leadership that can lead it to victory. Through a revolutionary programme the workers can draw in the middle class, the students, farmers and poor and throw the capitalists and their system into the dustbin of history. This is our urgent task.