Turkey: How did Erdoğan win the elections?

On Sunday, the party of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AK Party, won a comfortable majority in Turkey’s parliament. To many of the thousands of radicalised youth and workers this came as a huge shock. How could this blatant murderer and aspiring despot get the support of large sections of the population?

AKP (Freedom and Justice Party) 49.29% - 313 seats

CHP (The Republican party) 25.5% - 134 seats

MHP (Nationalist Movement) 12% - 42 seats

HDP (Peoples' Democratic Party) 10.69% 61 seats

The figures speak for themselves. The AK Party achieved almost 9 percentage points more than in the elections last June. It has thus regained the parliamentary majority that it had lost in June, which was the first major political defeat for Erdoğan.

Were the elections fair?

Were the elections fair? How could they be, when the south east of the country, home to the Kurds who largely supported the leftwing HDP, has been on the receiving end of a one-sided civil war since July. Brutal military raids, sieges and snipers, terrorising neighbourhoods to enforce arbitrary curfews, have cost more than 2000 lives - many if not most of which were those of innocent youngsters, children and the elderly; when the main left wing and Kurdish-based party had its election manifestos confiscated and hundreds of its offices ravaged by vigilante mobs, organised and protected by the state; or when several thousand leftist and Kurdish activists, amongst whom were many elected local officials, have been attacked, hounded and imprisoned for no reason.

For the past three months an atmosphere of terror has been imposed on Turkey by its ruling clique. Hundreds of working class and left wing activists have been harassed, attacked and killed in attacks by the state or in terrorist attacks carried out by its Islamist and nationalist proxies. As soon as the horrifying video of the body of 24 year old actor Haci Lokman Birlik (killed by the police), being dragged around the streets by state security forces appeared, Sabah, the faithful mouthpiece of the regime, justified it by saying that it was a normal practice throughout the world. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in the meantime promised to launch an inquiry into why the incident was filmed!

ankara-terror-attackThe Ankara bombing that killed more than one hundred people at a trade-union and left wing peace protest also spread shockwaves throughout Turkey. But while millions of people were mourning and angrily blaming the state for its complicity, the regime unapologetically attacked the victims and the left wing. The actions of the police during the event, of attacking the fleeing protesters, the wounded and the incoming ambulances, confirmed the complicity of the state in the barbaric act of terror.

Prime minister Davutoğlu, speaking a few days later, said that his government and his party’s views were “360 degrees” different from those of ISIS - the officially accepted perpetrators of the bombing. This presumed slip of a tongue was however never corrected by the prime minister who went on to order a ban on all news regarding any investigation into the terror attack. So while the information on the perpetrators and their links to Islamists - as well as the state - was easily attainable and distributed through international media, their dissemination was illegal inside Turkey.

Davutoğlu also claimed that the state was in possession of the names of dozens of Islamist suicide bombers whom, however, it could not arrest, because they had not yet done anything illegal. In the meantime, scores of journalists, activists, and normal people were being arrested for tweets and comments in which they allegedly had offended the president. Two boys aged 12 and 13 for instance, are facing two years in jail for having torn down posters of the president in order to sell them to a junk dealer.

The deliberate ambiguity of the state on the question of its support for ISIS and its killing of left wing activists, in particular after the Ankara bombing, was a message from Erdoğan - a message which the leftist HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas correctly deciphered: “If you oppose us we will kill you in broad daylight and cover it up.”

In the following weeks the state terror continued; more and more journalists were detained, and whatever formal freedom of press existed was highly constrained by threats, court orders and a wave of expropriations of companies belonging to other - albeit bourgeois - opponents of Erdoğan’s rule. By the last week of the elections Erdoğan achieved a monopoly-like control over the mass media, which was used - along with all the resources of the state - to spread his lies and distortions, to further add to the atmosphere of terror and to whip up more anti-Kurdish hysteria.

In the typical two-faced fashion of the western “democrats”, German chancellor, Angela Merkel (a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize!) went to Turkey to promote Erdoğan in this period, even offering Turkey a possible membership of the EU - in exchange for Turkey preventing refugees from getting into the EU. The publication of a critical progress report on Turkey was also delayed by the EU Commission until after the elections.

The level of harassment and intimidation did not diminish on the day of the elections. In particular, the Kurdish areas were heavily militarised and a mood of fear and terror was spread to put the maximum pressure on voters. A delegate of the European Parliament called it the most “militarist atmosphere" she had ever witnessed.

Of course there was also direct vote rigging,, such as voting stations which counted more votes than voters; AK Party candidates who tweeted pictures of their ballots before the voting procedure even started; and several regions of Istanbul where the Turkish Supreme Election Board (YSK) announced the election results before the delivery of the voting papers.

How can any election under these conditions be free and fair? Erdoğan was not going to leave anything to chance. Nevertheless, the AK Party did not win the election simply because of direct vote rigging, but because of the campaign of terror.

Balancing between the classes

Having initially fought against the mainly nationalist and republican faction of the Turkish bourgeoisie in order to rise to power more than ten years ago, the AK Party’s biggest problem today has become the rising radicalisation amongst the youth and the working class who have been moving to the left. This tendency was first clearly displayed during the Gezi park protests in 2013, and in a wave of strikes and protests since then. The rising class struggle was partially reflected in the rise of the HDP, a leftist organisation which has its roots in the Kurdish movement. Their entrance into parliament in June was the main reason why the AK Party lost its majority. This ruined Erdoğan’s dreams of resurrecting Turkey’s sultanate by concentrating powers in the president's office and relegating parliament to a merely decorative position.

Erdoğan opportunistically used the negotiations with the Kurdish movement to strike blows against the Turkish nationalists - mainly represented by the CHP - from the left; then he swung sharply to the other side, attacking the Kurds in order to gain support amongst petit bourgeois and lumpen nationalist chauvinists, and in order to drive a wedge between the HDP and the rest of the Turkish working class - i.e. in order to divide the working class on national lines.

By provoking the PKK to attack Turkish forces and killing Turkish soldiers and police officers - none of whom, of course, were from the elite families around Erdoğan or his cronies - he succeeded in creating a mood of terror, instability and uncertainty, as well as pulling in a layer of the Turkish masses behind himself.

This tactic was what paid off - not only amongst the conservative Anatolian middle classes, from which he received several percent of his new votes, but also amongst the Kurdish conservatives who supported the HDP in June. The HDP lost a total of 1 million votes compared to the June elections, and the majority of these were lost in its eastern and south eastern strongholds.

Although Erdoğan had no official role in these elections - as a president he is not allowed to be a member or a public supporter of any party - the elections were about him. His message was clear: choose between me, the guarantor of order and the unity of Turkey, or anyone else, who will only offer chaos.

The opposition

In this context, it is important to note that the majority of the voters actively voted against Erdoğan. This shows the polarised situation in Turkey today. The nation is divided into two camps, with the majority of the population against Erdoğan, his corrupt rule, his authoritarian Islamist tendencies and his imperialist adventures. At the same time, the AK Party’s campaign was not one of hope and enthusiasm for the future, but sometimes even quite a dull affair.

erdogan-aide-kicks-protesterErdogan aide kicking a relative of one of the vicims of the Soma mine disasterThe real question must thus be, why did he win? Why does someone who is seen as corrupt and thuggish and who does not awake enthusiasm win the elections in such a polarised atmosphere? Erdoğan has been embroiled in a never ending stream of scandals; he has acted like a thug; and is widely accepted to be behind the increasing presence of ISIS and other Islamist organisations, which have been playing a destabilising role in Turkey for the past three years. It is also clear to a majority of the population that no matter how much they dislike the PKK, it is Erdoğan who is provoking a war with it and thus causing the death of hundreds of Turkish soldiers and police officers, most of whom are from the poorer layers of society. Yet, while the masses have been increasingly radicalised, they were not offered a political project in the elections that could show a way out of the impasse and chaos in Turkey today.

The CHP has historically been the party which has captured left-drifting trends in Turkish society. But for most of those who are looking for a way out of the crisis in Turkey today, the party, and in particular its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, appear no different than the typical “pragmatic” politician; that is, one with no principles. For the presidential elections last year the party united with the far-right MHP to field a joint candidate, who not only defended a right-wing economic programme, but who was chosen for his clear Islamic credentials.

While the ranks of the CHP have been pushing it to the left and into opposition to the AK Party, the leadership has been extremely moderate in its dealings with Erdoğan, going as far as to have serious discussions about entering a coalition government - a trap all the parties have fallen into. But by trying to copy the AK Party or legitimising its crimes by reaching out to it, the party has discredited itself and alienated the best workers and youth. Thus it has not capitalised on Erdoğan’s fall in popularity and has remained largely stagnant in terms of votes since 2011.

One former adviser to the AK Party co-founder, Abdullah Gul, speaking about the lack of an alternative to the AK Party said that; “The other parties have totally missed this aspect: their campaigns have not tried to create a mobilization around an idea such as that of the AKP. Indeed, thrilled by the bigger-than-ever negative cloud around the AKP's global image, the opposition was almost sure that the result would be yet another hung parliament, with AKP remaining below 276 seats.”

The HDP

Halkların Demokratik Partisi HDPThe HDP has been an exception to the norm of Turkish politics over the past decade. While the general rhetoric has been one of slick new speak, vagueness and “moderation,” the HDP has been seen as a radical voice and a voice of the people. At the same time the radical and heroic struggle of the Syrian YPG, a group which is seen as a part of the same trend as the HDP, has inspired hundreds of thousands of Turks who have despaired over Erdoğan’s flirting with ISIS and other reactionary Islamists. Furthermore, in spite of many attempts by the HDP leadership to compromise with Erdoğan, his violent attacks against them have made the party a natural pole of attraction for many anti-Erdoğan youth.

By appealing to the “spirit of Gezi”, the HDP addressed the biggest weakness of the Kurdish movement of the past 40 years - namely that it was solely based in the Kurdish areas and around Kurdish national demands. By becoming a Turkey-wide organisation, as opposed to merely a Kurdish one, the HDP has played an important role in bridging the divide between the Kurdish and the Turkish part of the working class, which was carefully maintained by the ruling class. This in itself was also partly a result of the increased integration of the two through decades of rising urbanisation. The party also managed to unify the chronically divided and paralysed Turkish left and the most advanced layers of the working class. This is a position it has retained.

Thus, while the votes of the HDP decreased from 6m to 5.1m since June, this is still higher than the 3.9m votes it received during the presidential elections in 2014 and double the 2.5m votes received by Kurdish/leftist independent candidates in 2011. In spite of all the attempts by Erdoğan to push the HDP out of the Turkish populated areas in the west, the party kept its presence there; a significant achievement on its own, in these conditions.

But while thousands of young people, supported the HDP, large layers have been sceptical. During the Gezi park movement, while the majority of the ranks of the party participated in the movement, the party apparatus did not take part on an organised basis and was in fact seen as abstaining from the movement in order to save the peace negotiations between the government and the PKK.

During the presidential elections only a year ago, the same type of considerations meant that the HDP did not convincingly criticised Erdoğan in the eyes of the masses. Even though the party changed its line on these issues, its leadership is constantly seen as willing to compromise. Over the summer, only one week before the Suruc massacre, the HDP leadership kept the door open for coalition negotiations with the AK Party in case negotiations should break down with other parties. Later on, after Erdoğan launched a one-sided civil war against the Kurds and the left, the party even joined the interim government, formed after the election announcement, along with the AK Party on the grounds that it would use its positions to expose Erdoğan and to fight the AKP from within.

Even today, only a few days after the elections, and after it has become abundantly clear that Erdoğan will hold on to power at any cost, HDP spokespersons have been leaving a door open for accepting his presidential system in a change of the constitution. Although this was later denied, it further feeds the suspicions that Erdoğan has been insinuating - that the HDP is willing to betray the movement and make a deal with Erdoğan in return for a better deal on the Kurdish question.

During the election campaign, the HDP had a radical sounding programme with many good democratic demands, such as an end to war, more autonomy for the regional authorities, more rights for the national minorities and a clear demand for peace. However, these demands completely overshadowed the social and economic demands of the HDP, and in many people's eyes they were again a confirmation of the lies and distortions of the government - that the HDP only cares about the Kurds. Besides this, many of the party’s demands were matched more or less by the other parties, thus making the difference negligible in the eyes of many.

In spite of all this, the Ankara bombing led to a huge wave of anti-government sentiments and a rallying behind the HDP. In the days after the bombing hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. Universities across the country were shut down by spontaneous walkouts and public sector workers struck along with many industrial workers. In the Kurdish areas the mood was even more angry, bordering on insurrectionary in certain areas that had been waging a mass resistance against the military operations. Selahattin Demirtas made a very powerful speech which was seen by millions of people in which he stated what everyone knew, that the state - and Erdoğan in particular - was behind the terror in Turkey.

istanbul-after-ankara-bombingThe three day general strike called by the unions following the attack was the most successful major strike movement for many years, and it showed that the the working class is getting ready to join the struggle against Erdoğan. This movement was not an isolated event. It was a reflection of the accumulated and generalised anger of the workers and youth caused by years of attacks on living standards as well as hard won achievements such as secularism and democratic rights. It was also clear that the regime was shaken by this movement.

But the full potential of turning the movement into a national mass struggle remained unrealised. In fact, mass activities were aborted for the duration of the election campaign due to the danger of attacks. While this was a correct measure, we must also remember that out of 2,000 people directly killed by the regime, only about 150 have been killed during mass protests. Erdoğan does not need a mass gathering to kill people. Neither will he leave power voluntarily if he is voted out. The only way to remove him is to prepare a movement from below based on the revolutionary movement of the Turkish and Kurdish masses.

Erdoğan maneuvers

The lack of such development gave Erdoğan more room for maneuvering. With the lack of a strong and clear alternative, amidst increasing uncertainty and instability, the most backward and conservative parts of the petit bourgeoisie - which is under enormous pressure from the collapsing economy and the rising instability, and which is desperately looking for a strong class to lean on - swung towards Erdoğan. This is typical of this class, which lacks the ability to act independently and which always ends up falling behind the most decisive and strongest of the two main classes - the working class and the capitalist class.

Erdoğan’s promises of stability and a return to the economic prosperity of the first 10 years of his rule, fit right into the  inherent conservatism of this layer, who did not see any other alternative to stopping the chaos which is ensuing their lives. By dividing the working class on national lines and by imposing a regime of terror, Erdoğan managed to appear as the strong man, embodying and guaranteeing the nation. His whole campaign was in fact geared towards this, with the slogan "It's not me, it's not you, it's Turkey".

ypg-fighters-kobaneThis also had an effect in the conservative Kurdish areas. As long as the HDP was moving forward and the Kurdish movement in Syria was taking big steps forward, they supported the movement; but as soon as tensions rose without a credible mass response organised by the Kurdish leaders, the Kurdish conservative middle layers became demoralised and pessimistic. Seeing a return to the methods of the PKK, which did not achieve much through 40 years of civil war, they returning to the AKP to beg for stability.

Instability ahead

But the problems of Turkey are not a question of parliamentary majority; they are a part of the crisis of Turkish capitalism. As long as the Turkish economy - supported by the world economy - was growing, extreme inequality and the corrupt rule of the ruling class was tolerated by the working masses. But as the economy slowed down, the masses became more and more radicalised and restless. In order to defend its rule and its privileges, the ruling clique has had to swing to the right and lean on the most backward and reactionary layers, but by moving to the right it is further feeding into the rising polarisation.

The reactionary forces that he has nurtured to intervene in Syria and to crackdown on the left in Turkey will develop a logic of their own. As any Pakistani or Syrian person can explain, all those regimes who have tried to tame the Islamists have lived to regret it. In order to preserve his own position, Erdoğan has laid the ground for what could be the “Syrianisation” of Turkey - that is, its disintegration, not just between the Kurds and the Turks, but also between the Anatolian and the western parts, which could potentially lead to Turkey becoming a failed state.

The recent electoral victory however, will feed into Erdoğan’s megalomania, making him even more ruthless and arrogant. His campaign against the Kurds will not end either, as he will probably move to settle the score with all those who have dared to stand up to him.

Thus, the stability that the middle classes are yearning for will not come. Neither will the previous years of prosperity return, which were fueled by a world economic boom. As this reality dawns on the masses, all that will be left will be the rising inequality and the increasing exploitation of the Turkish workers and youth. The looting of the Palace and its cronies, along with rising poverty and misery, will bring the working masses into conflict with the ruling clique again and again. The petit bourgeoisie will be fluctuating between conservatism, yearning for the stability promised by Erdoğan, and outrage and anger caused by his broken promises. But they will not have anyone else to go to other than the working class.

Erdoğan’s despotic nature is of course also causing cracks within the ruling class, parts of which are seriously worried about the direction his rule is taking. But the Turkish liberal bourgeoisie, which once played a partially progressive role, has been reduced to a timid parasite. While it fears Erdoğan, it is more afraid of the movement of the masses. So, in spite of its high pitched objections, they have always been willing to deal and negotiate with Erdoğan, who in turn secures their profits by robbing the state coffers or by attracting speculative capital to Turkey. Erdoğan’s backward, lumpen and thuggish nature is a reflection of the dead end of the Turkish ruling class itself.

26-nisanThe only class which can show a way out of the impasse is the Turkish working class - the strongest working class in the Middle East and North Africa. But the working class has no leadership or organisation; it remains the task of the HDP to bridge the gap between the revolutionary youth and the mass of the workers. This can only be done through a focussed and decisive effort to connect with the struggles of the workers in all parts of the county and to generalise and raise their demands on a national level though a radical programme and plan of struggle. If waged decisively, such a struggle would quickly attract large layers of the middle classes, who are just as much victims of the crisis of capitalism, but who are incapable of finding a way out through their own class.

At the same time the party must connect the daily demands with the general struggle against capitalism. The struggle for justice, peace and for civilised standards of living cannot be won as long as power remains in the hands of a minority. Only by taking economic and state power into their own hands can the working masses overcome the decay and disintegration of society which capitalism brings. This must be patiently explained to the masses, who will gradually come to the same conclusions through their own experiences.

Turkey is passing through turbulent times. The elections were a victory for Erdoğan; but they do not reveal the full situation. Elections cannot portray anything but a static point within a fluid process; nor can they show what lies underneath.

Turkey is simmering just below the boiling point. Widespread anger and frustration episodically reveal itself through accidental movements and events, only to then die down due to the lack of an organised lead. But while this provides the ruling class with a temporary breathing space for maneuvering, it does not solve the main contradictions. In such an explosive situation the mood can turn within 24 hours, and today's triumphant Erdoğan could be faced with a revolutionary movement which would wipe him off the map. Once the workers and youth of Turkey begin to move, nothing will be able to stop them. Their movement will usher in a new phase of the class struggle - not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.