To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
Date: June 11, 2015
RE: The Turkish elections of June 7, 2015

The Turkish elections of June 2015
and the split among the masses

A few days ago, the left-wing made important gains in the Turkish general election of June 7. About one out of eight voters cast their ballot for the People's Democratic Party (HDP), which thus made it well over the 10% threshold needed for a party to be represented in parliament. (1) It won 80 seats out of total of 550 in the Grand National Assembly.

The HDP is largely a Kurdish party, with the Kurds being the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. But the HDP reached out to people of all ethnic groups. Moreover, it is a coalition including  socialists, environmentalists, and gay rights advocates. It also has a near-50 percent quota for women candidates, and 10 percent for LGBT candidates.

The Islamic AKP (Justice and Development Party), which has ruled Turkey for over a decade, again received the most votes in a national election, but it failed to get a majority. This was a sharp setback for its plan to curtail democratic rights by changing the Turkish constitution to increase the power of the presidency. And this was due in large part to the success of the HDP. (2)

The election occurred against a background of major strikes in auto last month, in which workers won some wage demands and also the right to leave reactionary company unions that oppose economic action. As well, the HDP was the target of the majority of violent attacks on political parties during the election campaign; for example, on June 5, a HDP election rally in the city of Diyarbakir was attacked with two bombs (2 dead, more than 100 injured).

The success of the HDP shows that a new type of opposition in Turkey to political Islamism is gaining strength, an opposition which also opposes the repressive measures promoted by Kemalism in the name of secularism. The party's position on the struggle in Syria isn't clear, and no doubt it has trouble on other issues as well. It has not solved the ideological crisis of the left-wing forces in Turkey, but has instead managed to unite a large section of the left despite differences among the left-wing groups. Yet for now, it represents a step forward for Turkey, and its electoral success may help transform Turkish politics.

The rule of the AKP

Turkey has been plagued by the tradition of the harsh, bureaucratic methods of Kemalism (Mustafa Kemal having come to power after World War I in a nationalist revolution from the top), and by military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980. The Kemalists sought to modernize Turkey, but did so through repressive means, rode roughshod over the working masses, and were hostile to the ethnic minorities. They promoted, not a tolerant secularism that unites the working masses, but a bureaucratic and repressive version of secularism, a Bismarckian secularism, so to speak.

The Islamist AKP came to power in the elections in 2002. It has carried out some reforms, removed certain oppressive measures  such as the ban on Islamic headscarves in colleges and government offices, and made overtures to the Kurdish minority. But it is also firmly market fundamentalist, intolerant of opposition in the press or on the streets, lavishly corrupt, and has sought to push some Islamic restrictions on the entire population. In brief, it acts like many a conservative party has done in Europe, only with Islamic rather than Christian symbolism.

AKP's founder, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the Mayor of Istanbul (1994-98); then, after the AKP began winning national elections, he became the Prime Minister of Turkey (2003-2014), and now its president (2014 to present). He has become more authoritarian as time has gone by. His government violently suppressed the nationwide protests in 2013 against the replacement of Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul with commercial development (11 dead and 8,000 injured). Almost all strikes have been banned. (3) When 311 workers were killed on May 13 last year in the worst Turkish mine explosion ever, Erdogan punched a protester and told the families of the dead: "What happened, happened. It is from God." And his government has made "insulting" Erdogan into a criminal offense.

The split among the masses

A major obstacle to the class struggle in Turkey has been the split among the working people between those influenced by political Islamism and those by Kemalist secularism. The military and the Kemalist politicians present themselves as the bulwark against Islamic extremism, while the Islamists present themselves as fighting religious oppression and as providing charity to poverty-stricken masses ignored by the other politicians. So long as the economy has been growing, this has given the AKP support among a section of the masses.

A similar split exists in some other countries of the middle East, with the local dictatorial parties taking the place of the Kemalists. Some thought the AKP presented the way out of the political paralysis among the masses reinforced by this split. For example, in The Invisible Arab, a book which manifested some of the excitement of the early days of the Arab Spring,  Marwan Bishara also wrote that "The ruling AK Party in Turkey has shown the way forward in accepting the parameters of the secular civil state..." (P. 221). But  Erdogan's authoritarianism has punctured such wishful thinking.

The real sign of progress in Turkey is not the rule of AKP, but the way opposition has developed to it. This has been in large part through protracted protests and social movements, rather than by aligning with the military or other secular authoritarians. The old-style military and Kemalist secularists have not been able to dominate this movement. The HDP has stood instead for a secularism that "frees all from the state monopoly over religion and enables those of any faith or of none to live freely as they chose" (from a speech by HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas in December 2014)

This is in contrast to Egypt, where the leaders of the liberal opposition to the Islamist President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi,  backed the military coup in 2013 by General al-Sisi. Indeed, the Trotskyist "Revolutionary Socialists" also backed the movement leading to the coup, although regretting military rule afterwards; this mistake was yet another sign of Trotskyism's inability to understand the Marxist theory of the democratic struggle. The Egyptian secular opponents of the Mubarak dictatorship lacked the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why Morsi came to power; but instead of working steadfastly to develop mass organization and overcome the influence of political Islam through involving the working people in mass struggles over a period of time, the liberals sought to shortcut the process by relying on a coup against Morsi. No doubt, the liberals also had reasons for this, such as not wanting to see workers build class organization and rise up against  market fundamentalism. The result of the liberal plan has been the creation of a new dictatorship under al-Sisi, even more bloody than the Mubarak dictatorship which was overthrown in the early days of the Arab Spring.


(1) A party has to get 10% of the national vote to have any seats in the Turkish parliament, but independent candidates just have to win their own district. So leftists had been running as independent candidates, and then grouping together in parliament, but parties get disproportionately more representation in parliament than collections of independent candidates. Turkey hasn't always had the 10% rule: the military imposed the 10% rule after its coup in 1980.

(2) Among other things, the AKP had developed support among the Kurdish minority, and it was the HDP that took much of this away from it. The HDP is only the fourth largest party in parliament, but without its success in running as a party, many more seats would go to the AKP.

(3) A law passed by the AKP-dominated parliament in 2012 allows the government to ban strikes. It has repeated use this law, citing grounds of "public health and national security" to "suspend" strikes for 60 days, after which there is a compulsory arbitration process. <>

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Posted on June 11, 2015