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Erdoğan’s Electoral Setback and the Path Forward for Socialists

In Turkey’s local elections, the ruling AKP has lost in the country’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara. As a result, President Erdoğan is seeking a do-over of the Istanbul vote. Meanwhile, the socialist left largely failed to pursue an independent line during the elections.

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Supporters of Turkey's main opposition party "Republican People's Party" (CHP). AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC

In the last 17 years, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian under the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP). The process has accelerated since 2015, when state power became almost entirely concentrated in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, in a case of rampant Bonapartism, has risen above the country’s competing bourgeois factions as “a government of the saber as the judge arbiter of the nation” (Trotsky). Yet, only nine months after Erdoğan was reelected with almost unchecked powers, his party received a severe blow in the municipal elections of March 31, losing six major cities (including Istanbul and Ankara) and eight medium-sized cities. AKP and its fascist ally, the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP), have together polled at 52%, winning most municipalities, but they have lost footing in the most important urban centers, with their votes now more concentrated in the country’s semirural conservative heartland.

In a telling statistic, the municipalities controlled by the AKP after the 2014 municipal elections represented 75% of total GDP; this figure has now dropped to 35%. Istanbul and Ankara are especially important for the government, because their real estate and construction industries are the driving engine of the struggling Turkish economy, and the municipalities are key in distributing mega construction projects and urban rent among the pro-AKP business elite.

Since the loss of these municipalities is so important, AKP has been pressuring the local electoral boards to recount the votes. At the time of writing, AKP was seeking a rerun of the Istanbul election.

Crisis in the Economy

The AKP’s loss of support can largely be attributed to the economic crisis that has hit Turkey since the summer of 2018, in the form of capital flight toward imperialist centers, an ensuing hike in foreign-exchange rates, rampant inflation (a whopping 40% in food prices), rising interest rates, diminishing investment and consumption, and impoverishment and unemployment hitting the working class.

AKP lost about 10% of its votes in Turkey’s economic and political center, Istanbul, and a combined 2 million votes in the cities of Kocaeli, Bursa, Kayseri and Gaziantep. AKP also lost the municipalities of two working-class districts in Istanbul, Küçükçekmece and Esenyurt. But this does not represent a radicalization of working-class politics—most AKP voters either abstained from voting (the participation rate of 84% is the second-lowest in the last 10 years) or voted MHP. At best, the electoral result represents an estrangement of a section of the oppressed from the ruling party.

Since the AKP’s campaign began, Erdoğan has tried to paint the election as a matter of life and death, trying to instigate patriotic mobilization—to no avail. In one barely veiled threat, he even said, “Who cares about the rising cost of fruits and vegetables. Do you know the price of a bullet?” He has thus tried to downplay the economic crisis with jingoistic rhetoric. Although as president, he was not personally concerned with the elections, he organized countless rallies, big and small, in Istanbul and Ankara, putting his own charisma to work. Nevertheless some sections of the working and lower middle classes seem to have made up their minds based on the government’s failing economic performance.

What Can Be Expected from the CHP?

The municipal elections went well for the opposition Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or CHP). Yet the party has not achieved its gains by using dissident, let alone reformist or anti-neoliberal, rhetoric against the ruling bloc. Instead, its victorious candidates in Ankara and Istanbul hail from Turkey’s ultranationalist and pro-business right-wing tradition. For example, the new mayor of Istanbul is nicknamed Ekrem the Concrete: He started his career as a building contractor, and after becoming mayor of an Istanbul district, he flooded the communities with concrete blocks, shopping malls, etc. Right after he was nominated as the CHP’s candidate for Istanbul, he immediately visited President Erdoğan in a gesture of reconciliation.

In fact, the leader of CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has declared that the party will not ask for any early general elections to bring down the AKP government, suggesting that the CHP will probably rule these municipalities and tap into their huge urban rent while minimizing friction with Erdoğan. Thus, these municipal governments will continue to wreak havoc across the city landscape through forced urban transformation, the displacement of working-class communities, environmental destruction, further commercialization of urban space and the crushing of municipal workers’ rights. When that happens, the socialist groups that supported this alliance will find themselves in a contradictory position: Will they be drawn further into the orbit of CHP municipal governments or strive to build an independent line?

At a more macro level, we may even expect that, once the economic crisis in Turkey worsens and the AKP government starts to implement an austerity program (with or without IMF support), the CHP will not oppose the neoliberal pruning of workers’ salaries and rights. In fact in his speech on election night, Kılıçdaroğlu did not criticize Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, but instead emphasized his party’s 13-point economic program focusing on the independence of the central bank, inspiring confidence in foreign capital, budget discipline, and so on. Similarly, after the voting ended, the biggest bosses’ organization in Turkey, TÜSİAD, invited all political parties to join a consensus around “structural reforms” in the coming four years: “Now that the local elections are behind us, the upcoming years without elections are a great opportunity for our economic, social and political reform agenda.”

As such, although the election results may usher in a new balance of power, this does not change the fact that some sections of the radical left are deeply mistaken in tailing the CHP. By pointing to the CHP as the savior from Erdoğan, they set themselves a dangerous trap: They will be indelibly tainted by antilabor policies, locally implemented and nationally supported by the CHP.

Indeed, the Turkish left’s tactic is even worse than a popular front, because the CHP does not even mention the names of socialist groups or the Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, or HDP). Indeed, the latter has never been mentioned by the CHP, nor have the demands of the Kurdish people or the hunger strike by the prominent Kurdish MP Leyla Güven. Kılıçdaroğlu never expressed gratitude to Kurdish voters, who were key in helping the CHP win Istanbul and Ankara, because the CHP is more afraid of Kurds and socialists than it is of Erdoğan. The left’s tactic is thus not even a popular front but tailing, pure and simple.

Cracks in the Power Bloc?

Another winner of the elections is, paradoxically, the junior partner of the ruling bloc, namely the ultranationalist MHP, without whose electoral support Erdoğan could not have won in the constitutional referendum of 2017 or the presidential elections of 2018 in the first place. The AKP’s dependence on the MHP has grown now that the latter increased the number of its municipalities from eight to 11 in the election.

Although it suffered a split and was expected to wither away, the MHP has now come to position itself as the kingmaker, extending invaluable support to Erdoğan. This means that the government’s rhetoric may become even more aggressively nationalist in the coming years, and that no softening is to be expected on the Kurdish question.

This strengthening of the MHP also bodes ill for its alliance with the AKP, since the alliance may be more prone to fissure. Furthermore, the weakening of AKP seems to have encouraged some of its former leaders (such as ex-president Abdullah Gül and ex-ministers Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu) to build new conservative, nationalist parties of their own, which could steal some of the AKP’s constituency. That, together with the CHP’s control of the major cities, could spell trouble for the Bonapartist regime as the Turkish economy continues its slide into crisis.

The Position of HDP

In most western provinces of Turkey, the pro-Kurdish HDP has given its full, unconditional support to the electoral alliance of the opposition parties, which have in turn tried to distance themselves from the HDP in order to seem patriotic. Only in some western provinces did HDP run with its own candidates. The party was largely invisible in the streets during the run-up to the municipal elections.

In the eastern, Kurdish provinces, however, the HDP won back several municipalities that had been wrested away from it by force starting in 2016, with the imprisonment of elected Kurdish mayors and their replacement by “trustees” appointed by the central government.

On March 31, the HDP won eight of these large municipalities and increased its votes in 30 settlements, including the largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakır, and the districts of Cizre, İdil and Nusaybin, devastated by the army. In another significant success, it won the municipalities of Kars and Iğdır from the MHP. These are important achievements, considering the immense pressure and violence that the HDP has suffered at the hands of security forces. AKP candidates did manage to win the crucial Şırnak and Bitlis provinces, but this was basically owing to the forced displacement of countless local residents by military operations in recent years, as well as the votes of military personnel transferred to the area.

It was a huge mistake for the HDP to lend its support to the CHP’s electoral alliance with IYI Party (ultranationalists which have split off from MHP), dubbed the National Alliance. It did so on the grounds that it was necessary to unite against “institutional fascism.” The alliance only instrumentalizes the HDP for its own ends, and in fact the CHP MPs’ votes had been critical in removing HDP leaders’ and MPs’ parliamentary immunity and imprisoning them in 2016. It was also tragic that socialist groups under the umbrella of the HDP—with one exception—have not criticized the HDP’s decision to ally itself with bourgeois parties.

Although the HDP leadership has taken an increasingly liberal direction, the party’s base continues to be a bulwark against rising authoritarianism in Turkey, since it is built on the oppressed Kurdish masses who have come out in their thousands during the celebrations of the Kurdish spring festival of Newroz, on March 21. The Kurdish movement and masses continue to wage a fierce struggle for freedom, as has been seen in the latest hunger strikes led by Leyla Güven against the repression in the prisons.

Under the pretext of the HDP leadership’s increasingly liberal and ambiguous political stance, several socialist groupings now distance themselves from the Kurdish question, with some sounding increasingly “patriotic” in an attempt to appeal to the Turkish working classes. Such positions should never be tolerated. Socialists should clearly criticize the HDP, but not, when necessary, refrain from coming together with HDP activists around specific, well-defined objectives.

Popular Front against ‘Fascism’?

Unfortunately, the CHP’s National Alliance has received largely uncritical support from the pro-Kurdish HDP as well as Turkey’s deeply rooted, centrist socialist parties (such as ÖDP, EMEP, Halkevleri, TİP). They have tried to embellish this as a “left-wing alliance,” or “democratic alliance.” For instance, the leader of ÖDP, Alper Taş, ran as mayoral candidate for the CHP in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district.

Using typical popular-frontist discourse, these socialist groups have been talking about the establishment of “all-out,” “open” fascism in Turkey, and calling for a common front with a supposedly progressive and “secular” section of the bourgeoisie. But the CHP is not a reformist workers’ party or even a social democratic party; it is an all-out neoliberal formation with a long record of union busting and urban rent-seeking in municipalities. Moreover, the CHP is the historical founder of the bourgeois republic, both staunchly nationalist and anti-Kurdish. Its junior partner, the ultranationalist IYI Party, employs rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric against Syrian refugees.

It was therefore quite weird to see the joyful reactions of several socialist militants on election night as they watched the AKP lose the elections in Istanbul and Ankara. Certainly, any debilitating blow against the ruling Bonapartist bloc is welcome, but can socialists really cherish the victory of one bourgeois alliance against another—even if the latter fashions itself as progressive, secular and modern?

Only a handful of socialist political formations pursued an independent working-class line, organizing campaigns around independent socialist or worker candidates.

An Independent, Socialist Line

Although the biggest socialist parties gave their support to the CHP—as they had done many times in their history going back to the 1960s, giving up an independent working-class line—there were modest but important examples of organizing around independent candidates.

Various smaller socialist parties presented their own candidates for the Istanbul mayorship. But they did not go far beyond engaging in propaganda for their individual causes and would have been much more effective had they acted together and organized a united campaign around a single candidate. In a hope-inspiring example, a geologist fired from university by the regime, Savaş Karabulut, ran as an independent socialist candidate for the mayorship of Istanbul’s Avcılar district. He was supported by two socialist groups and some independent activists.

His campaign managed to air the demands of the working class and the youth, and it raised the issue of a very probable Istanbul earthquake, which would devastate working-class districts with their poor infrastructure, as was the case in the earthquake of 1999. There were also neighborhood campaigns in which socialist and feminist candidates ran as candidates for neighborhood representatives (muhtar)—in Istanbul’s Yenibosna and Okmeydanı communities—with mixed results.

These campaigns were rather limited and fragmented, lacking influence in working peoples’ daily lives. In this sense the independently minded socialists failed to constitute a veritable third alternative to the AKP and CHP. Whether we like it or not, the HDP did pursue a political tactic—albeit a flawed one that is increasingly turning into a long-term strategy—becoming the only proper left-wing formation to do so.

Looking Forward

Socialists cannot limit themselves to propaganda around general principles of socialist municipal politics, and now that the elections are over, they must strive for a united political front among formations that categorically refuse to lend support to bourgeois parties, around the struggle against authoritarianism and the defense of working masses’ rights in the face of the economic crisis. Such a united formation may be inspired by the Workers’ Left Front (FIT) in Argentina and Antarsya in Greece.

Agitation about the economic crisis is insufficient to stir the working class into action. Crisis leads to increased workers’ militancy in some locations, but it provokes racist attacks against Syrian and other migrants in others. We cannot construe “economics” as a sphere independent from “politics” and believe that rising food prices alone will be enough to mobilize the working masses. Political intervention has a constitutive role in forming the political subject itself.

Instead, we need to establish the connection between day-to-day hardship and the general political situation while warning the wider masses against harboring any hopes in the AKP or CHP. Moreover, we must establish united local initiatives for the defense of workers’ rights, the urban and natural environment, women’s struggles and migrants’ rights in both the AKP- and CHP-ruled cities. We also need to assume more responsibility in unions and other mass organizations, or start building these from scratch where they do not exist.

We may remind ourselves of the experience of the construction workers of Istanbul’s third airport: After their massive protests against dire working conditions, they are now force-marched to work under the supervision of the gendarmerie. As such, the coercive apparatus of the state already adds a “political” content to daily, “economic” struggles. Socialists in Turkey need to break with bourgeois politicians and economism in order to organize the independent force of the masses against the forces of the state.

The ongoing crisis of socialism in Turkey (and in the world, for that matter) arises from the absence of a strong formation worthy of that name, one that is deeply rooted in the working class and wider masses. Yet socialists cannot use this as a pretext to shy away from their duties, and must instead start to build such a formation today through united action that rise to the challenges of the day. It is through such local collaborations that different socialist groupings may test each other and start joining forces.

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Barış Yıldırım

Barış is a socialist based in Istanbul.

Doğuş Çakan

Doğuş is a socialist based in Istanbul.

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