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Days of Promise and Danger: an in-depth look at the recent Turkish election

Post-election celebrations in the predominantly Kurdish city of Bitlis. Photo:
Post-election celebrations in the predominantly Kurdish city of Bitlis. Photo:

By the time you read this you will have no doubt already absorbed initial reactions—from euphoria to guarded optimism—of the international Left to the June 7 parliamentary elections in Turkey, the first ever in which the neoliberal Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power since 2002 has fallen out with its much touted “national will” (milli irade). Though its 40% showing at the polls still leave the AKP by far the most popular party, it fell just short of the parliamentary majority needed to form a single-party government, not to speak of the super-majority it would need to realize President Erdoğan’s plans to rewrite the constitution in his own favor by transforming Turkey into an executive republic. In more ways than one, the era of AKP omnipotence seems to have come to a close.

More important for the Left is how this result came about. The elections marked the rise to prominence of a new party: the Democratic Party of the Peoples (HDP), under whose aegis supporters of the Kurdish national movement made common cause with Turkish socialists and even liberals eager for a way out of a political discourse framed in equal measure by Turkish nationalism and religious identity politics. With 13% of the vote, the HDP crossed the 10% barrier for parliamentary representation and can now present itself convincingly as the party of a pluralist and democratic Left in Turkey. The HDP won majorities in the Kurdish Southeast and high tallies in impoverished urban neighborhoods, but it also won the votes of many so-called “White Turks” who in the past have reliably voted for Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP).

For several years now the ruling party has demonized all three opposition parties—but especially the HDP and CHP—as disloyal conspirators, traitors and “terrorists,” as if anyone who opposed the elected party in power were an enemy of the people. As a result it is not surprising that all three parties have categorically refused to form a coalition with the AKP. Yet this principled refusal carries its own pitfalls. A new coalition government made up of Erdoğan’s opponents may get the blame for the worsening economy that everyone expects to come later in the year. Since the AKP still commands by far the largest voting block, its presence would loom darkly over any fractious coalition whose sole unifying goal would likely be to keep the AKP from power.

While two-fifths of the electorate still favor Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, one-fourth stand by the secular nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), and roughly 17% favor the more aggressively nationalist and not-so-secular Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The HDP’s strong fourth-place finish overshadowed the 5% or so who voted for various splinter groups of either hardcore Kemalist or Islamist complexion.

With these numbers in mind, the LeftEast reader now has the option either to scroll down to a tactical analysis at the end (“What Next?”), or linger over who voted for each party and why. First off, why does anyone still vote for the…

…AKP (40.8%)?

For the duration of its first time in power and a year or so into its second, the ruling party pursued an economic growth plan typical of developing countries completing the transition to neoliberalism, featuring the massive sell-off of state assets and an increasing exploitation of wage labor. As worker productivity rose while wages stagnated, the Central Bank maintained high real rates of interest to continue attracting short-term finance capital from the mature economies of the capitalist core. These policies succeeded at raising GDP and maintaining the confidence of international investors and institutions such as the IMF. Subordinating labor to capital, Turkey belonged officially to the league of “respectable” nations.

Since the global economic crisis of 2008, Turkey has been able to diverge from the path of austerity-based neoliberalism without endangering the position of capital. Though hit by a one-year recession in 2009, Ankara quickly managed to turn the crisis into an opportunity. Rock-bottom interest rates in core capitalist countries enabled Turkish policymakers to lower their own rates, thus stimulating borrowing and consumption, without missing out on the finance capital streaming in from the West in search of rates still higher than those at home. Thus Ankara could indulge in high government spending without being labeled profligate by the “international community,” as it had been under social democratic governments at various points in the 1970’s and 1990’s.

This spending has stimulated the economy through extensive public works projects, and raised asset prices by making developed land more desirable on the market; since 2009 the largest growth industry in Turkey has been construction. While the underside of this construction economy is plain to see in the devastating level of fatalities from work accidents in Erdoğan’s Turkey, it would be naïve to expect working-class voters to see this as the only imprint of AKP economics on their lives. The resumption of growth after 2009, however based in the sphere of speculation rather than production, has enabled Ankara to afford a continued expansion of welfare payments as well. For instance, the yeşil kart (“green card”) program has increased manifold under the AKP, and according to welfare policy expert Erdem Yörük, Kurds have been especially strongly courted as recipients by welfare officials keen on turning their allegiances away from the Kurdish national movement and toward political Islam. The failure of this project, as we shall see shortly, is one of the main stories of the recent election.

There can be no doubt about who has benefited the most from the AKP’s economic regime: the 1%. The top percentile now owns 54% of the nation’s wealth, up from 39% upon the party’s ascension to power in 2002. With growth so dependent on speculative transactions in real estate and the financial sector, the share of the Turkish economy captured by wages has fallen in this period. Yet the AKP has been able to cut off just enough of an expanding pie—largely by taxing middle-income wages and further abrogating the labor rights of the more established proletariat—to keep many at the very bottom from complete ruination. Though their subordinate position within the neoliberal economy has not changed for the better, large sections of Turkey’s informal proletariat have been satisfied enough by the AKP’s modest redistribution to continue voting for the ruling party.

The AKP’s relentless campaign to portray any and all opponents of its political economy as atheist, coup-plotting foreign agents is not the only thing keeping many working-class votes in the ruling party column, though it is not a negligible factor either. Going into this election, the imbalance in media coverage of the four campaigns was astonishing, with some mainstream TV channels giving the AKP an effective monopoly on screen-time. Unwanted reportage, like Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar’s disclosure of likely Turkish weapons shipments to Islamist rebels in Syria, have been hit with publication bans and those brave enough to resist now face threats of prison time: in Dündar’s case a life sentence! Meanwhile there has been a long string of attacks on HDP offices and activists, culminating in the June 5 bombing of a Diyarbakır rally, which claimed three lives. The intent, it seems, has been to reawaken the association of the Kurds with terrorism, by making them its target…

Looking at the AKP election campaign, what was most striking was how much of the party’s advertisement hinged on its already being in power; the conspicuous place of the word güç (“might”) on many of their placards and billboards attests to this fact. Another leading campaign slogan was “onlar konuşur, AK Parti yapar” (“they just talk; the AK Party performs”), a distinction entirely based on the structural advantages of incumbency. After all, what can the opposition do but talk? Another keyword in the AKP campaign was İstikrar (“stability”), a term whose veneer of respectability derives from capitalist talk about the market, but which logically entails that one should vote for the party in power because it is in power.

One implication of such a campaign is that once the AKP begins to look less dominant, momentum may carry it down further. If it is true, as some have suggested, that some Turkish voters want to back a winner and will thus vote for a party on the basis of its might, then the AKP’s losing its absolute majority will be a serious problem for the party’s future. Of course there are structural reasons why voters in a developing country might think and vote in this manner, not least the fact that the international markets want stability, and voters are aware of how dependent their country is on those markets. Immediately after the election produced mixed results, the value of the Turkish Lira fell even further on the currency market. Another major factor behind votes for “stability” is the patrimonial largesse that the AKP state has been able to maintain alongside its neoliberalism.

We have seen how the international conjuncture since 2009 has enabled this combination to flourish. The bill for Turkey’s speculative growth is just now coming due: inflation is rising and the Lira steadily falling as a recovering US economy begins to suck capital back to the West. Whether or not the Federal Reserve raises its interest rates later this year, the era of cheap credit for Turkish banks and businesses, which now face a staggering amount of short-term debt, is by all accounts coming to a close. So too is the era in which political Islam could both feed the poor and grease the wheels of the 1%. The recent economic slowdown has no doubt cost the AKP many of the three million votes (9% of the total vote count) that it lost last weekend.

The largest opposition party is still the CHP (25%).

While the AKP’s program of speculative growth presents long-term threats to the productivity and stability of the economy, thus weakening the position of wage labor in general, its short-term losers have been white-color professionals and unionized industrial workers. These two groups are easily neutralized politically: the latter’s numbers are dwindling, while the former are easy targets of culturalist attacks on the “secular elite.”

In some ways this segment’s traditional representative, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made such demonization easier. Under the chairmanship of Deniz Baykal in the 2000’s voters encountered a CHP reactive in its posture and willing to resort to undemocratic means to try to stop its AKP opponents. Attempts to close the ruling party on constitutional grounds ultimately failed in the courts (in 2008) but cemented in the popular mind the image of a conspiratorial elite bent on blocking the will of the people. Baykal’s CHP never properly disowned demonstrators calling for “the army to do its duty,” and the military’s own public statement of disapproval of the ruling party in 2007 added fuel to the fire of such suspicions.

Though Baykal stepped aside in 2010 in favor of the more dynamic and populist Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the party’s elitist reputation continued to damage the cause of “republican” politics. Distrust of the secularist “juristocracy” and its CHP supporters enabled Erdoğan to pass a constitutional referendum in 2010 that seriously weakened the independence of the judiciary, preparing the ground for many of the authoritarian excesses of the AKP’s third term (2011-present).

This year the CHP made it a campaign promise to strengthen the rule of law, but in other ways its profile is changing. The party leadership has dropped its opposition to the wearing of headscarves in university classrooms and the civil service, and Kılıçdaroğlu’s own rhetoric betrays an acceptance of the presence of religion in the political arena. Economically, the party has pursued a populist line. Promising to raise the minimum wage and not subject it to taxation, the CHP has also called for debt markdowns for many households strapped by debilitating credit card debt as a result of the freewheeling credit economy of the AKP years.

On the macroeconomic front the CHP agenda remains ambiguous. Its declared front-woman for the economy has criticized “neoliberalism,” but her published critiques, which attack the reliance on asset-prices and construction, stop short of a full-blown attack on de-unionization and rising exploitation. Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu’s reassurances that he maintains contact with Kemal Derviş are not reassuring from a leftward point of view, as Derviş crafted the terms of Turkey’s compliance with the 2001 IMF mandate that gave shape to the AKP’s own economic plan in the decade following.

The CHP’s candidate list this year projected greater diversity, including more women as well as candidates of Armenian and Roma ethnicity, and one transgender woman. Turkey’s “republicans” have worked hard of late at not being merely the party of the ethnically Turkish secular middle class, the civil service and the military, but it is not yet clear what they are trying to become instead. This is not the case for the…

MHP (17%).

The Nationalist Movement Party claims to represent Türk-İslam Sentezi (“Turkish-Islamic synthesis”) or milli görüş (“the national viewpoint”), the original ideology of the Turkish Right, better than the AKP, which has betrayed it in favor of a rapprochement with the Kurds. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli is a very effective orator, speaking directly to what he calls “the Muslim Turkish nation” (müslüman Türk milleti) to warn it of the encroachments of alien powers and their domestic allies, including the untrustworthy AKP. These nationalists, formerly foot soldiers in the anti-Communist cause during the Cold War—MHP cadres were responsible for some of the most brutal murders of young leftist activists in the bloody 1970’s—are not averse now to tapping into anti-imperialist sentiment by harping on Erdoğan’s subservience to the American “Greater Middle East Project” (Büyük Orta Doğu Projesi or BOP in Turkish political shorthand). Bahçeli has also stirred justified populist anger over the corruption of the AKP government and the fact that its president now resides in a palace thirty times the size of the White House while ordinary people face escalating food costs amid a stagnating economy.

What a party stands for is in great measure a question of whom it is addressing. Referring to a recent concordat between the government and an Assyrian Christian foundation, Bahçeli has cast the AKP as a party “that opens churches and tears down mosques,” and he has also gotten mileage out of Erdoğan’s alleged chumminess with the Pope. He is clearly competing with the AKP over many of the same voters, and he may win more of them if that party continues to falter.

Now meet our protagonists: the HDP (13%)

The HDP is the latest in a chain of parties to have emerged from the national movement of the Kurds in the Southeast, the others having been successively closed by the courts for engaging in separatist politics. The party maintains a connection with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and some of its parliamentarians have visited him in prison to convey messages to and from the government. As the party becomes ensconced in the parliamentary landscape, there has been much talk about it supplanting the PKK military command as the government’s contact for bringing the war to a close.

It advocates native-language education in Kurdish-speaking areas, greater regional autonomy and local control over police and schooling. Across the Middle East, the Kurdish movement involves more women in politics than any other political camp, and the same is true of the democratic arm of the movement in Turkey: the HDP has the most female parliamentarians of any party, and has both a chairman and chairwoman, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ respectively. HDP-controlled city governments have put in place an unusual system that raises factory workers’ wages, but pays them to their wives if male workers should be found guilty of domestic violence.

Most important from our point of view is the HDP’s promise as a left-wing party capable of drawing working-class voters away from the AKP. With the labor movement in decline and internal immigration a spur to cultural displacement and conflict, the informal proletariat of Turkey’s cities has been a difficult demographic for other left-wing parties in recent years to attract—but the HDP has that potential.

The tenor of the party’s leadership is apparent in relation to an issue on which there is no single “Kurdish” stance, namely Turkey’s increasingly state-sponsored cultural conservatism. In recent years the ruling party has used its acclaimed economic performance to underwrite a radical transformation of Turkish society along the lines of conservative Sunni norms, departing from the liberal discourse on which it had put more emphasis in its first two terms. From claiming to defend the individual rights of the pious in a pluralistic society, the AKP has increasingly come to present itself as the guardian of public morals in a nation defined as Muslim. One centerpiece of this turn has been education reforms that Erdoğan forthrightly defended as the work of “raising a religious generation.”

While the left-nationalist opposition digs in its heels around the mythical image of its culturally progressive yet authoritarian founder, Demirtaş and his allies have instead displayed a tendency one might call “democratic secularism,” resisting coercive conservatism without projecting hostility to religion. The HDP has never been weighed down by support for restrictions on Islamic garb, and some female HDP politicians wear headscarves. Yet a nationwide school walkout in favor of “secular education” received outspoken support from many HDP cadres, including Demirtaş.

The ballooning budgets of the Directory of Religious Affairs might be expected to stir the ire of Kemalists most of all, but in fact it was Demirtaş who made the most of the issue in the election campaign, insisting that the Directory teaches “religion according to the state,” as opposed to popular religion. Some polls indicated that this anti-clerical stance was hurting the party’s prospects among those it hoped to turn away from the AKP, though other studies had shown that the HDP’s original core favored the elimination of mandatory Sunni religion classes by a margin of four to one.

The HDP’s political discourse reflects the desire to balance diverse constituencies, and this pluralism sometimes takes attention away from the party’s socialist dimension. In the Guardian, the party chairman has now suffered the indignity of being called a “Kurdish Obama”! Yet this liberal media preference for the charms of identity politics over the harshness of class politics reflects the way the campaign was covered in Turkey as well. The recent wildcat strikes and walkouts in the automotive sector are an important development for the working class, as they reflect a way around unions that can no longer effectively represent their members. Demirtaş sent out a message of support, which did not get much attention in the Turkish press.

What Next?

The imperative not to collaborate with the most popular party makes maneuvering difficult. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu advocates a coalition government but rules out forming one with the AKP, leaving as possibilities only a MHP-CHP-HDP triad and a minority government made up of the CHP and one of the other parties, with the third pledging “outside support” in the initial parliamentary vote of confidence. Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a CHP MP who happens to be of Kurdish origin, has come out strongly in favor of the three-party option, as has Cumhuriyet newspaper columnist Özgür Mumcu. However fantastical such a ménage-à-trois appears on ideological grounds, Mumcu argues that the three parties share a substantial common agenda vis-à-vis the palace: strip it of its power to command unlisted public expenditures, reverse its rigging of the rules for the selection of prosecutors, return the building itself…in short, dismantle the quasi-monarchy Erdoğan has built for himself and subject the presidency to the rule of law.

The biggest barrier to this proposal is ultranationalist intransigence. Devlet Bahçeli has made clear that he will not support any government that includes the HDP. As for a deal with his ideological cousins on the Islamist Right, the old “grey wolf” will only bring his MHP into a coalition if they call an end to the peace process and agree to investigate the four cabinet members accused of corruption in December 2013. Upon the inevitable refusal he can then leave it up to the voters’ imagination which cause has prevented the AKP from taking up his gallant offer to rescue the country from “instability.” Is it their inveterate corruption, or their insistence on placating PKK separatists?

Selahattin Demirtaş proposes an AKP-CHP “grand coalition” as the option most in line with the wishes of the voters. Certainly Demirtaş’s party wants to avoid ensconcing its nationalist nemesis in power, while honoring his own promise not to enter into an alliance with the AKP at the expense of the Turkish Left. Tactically speaking, it would also suit him to be able to present Kemalism and political Islam as united against him: something that may be true on an historical level but which has not yet coalesced on the electoral chessboard.

The only other option is to let the forty-five day period for the formation of a new government pass without issue, after which a new election would be held in ninety days. The new election would then be no later than late October. No doubt the AKP is banking on then making “stability” its signature issue, corralling stray voters with the feeling that a lack of clear direction is the worst fate of all. This argument cuts ice with many Turks who remember unstable coalition governments as recently as the 1990’s. On social media those opposition voters are already being harangued for plunging the country into a chaos that will weaken its international position.

The opposition parties would likely bet on the possibility that the AKP’s loss of its aura of invincibility will create a snowball effect further weakening it in the fall—or that the economy will continue to slide and that the AKP, not “instability,” will get the blame. That time is against the ruling party is a pretty good bet long term, but in the short term relying on another election is a risky strategy. Sending the country through yet another election cycle, with all the chicanery and violence that is likely to entail, cannot be good for the economy or the public psyche, not to speak of the uncertainty of the result.

Not surprisingly, the party that emerged out of the Kurdish national movement is ready to play the long game. For a decade the AKP has tried to coopt the force it represents with makeshift material blandishments, an intermittent will to negotiate and such partial acknowledgments as the opening of a public TV channel broadcasting pro-government material in Kurdish. The implicit logic is that core Kurdish demands can be traded away. Islamists have hoped, and Kemalists have feared, that the Kurds’ poverty and piety would make them amenable to such an arrangement, but in this both groups now look mistaken: the rise of the HDP has proven that the Kurds cannot be bought in this manner.

Since the election the HDP has proven something else as well: that it is not simply the party of the Kurds. Cutting a deal with Davutoğlu now would perhaps be the easy way out of the “Kurdish problem,” securing regional autonomy and cultural rights in return for Islamist supremacy in the country as a whole. By rejecting this route, the party leadership has demonstrated its readiness to serve as the party, not just of the Kurds, but of the Left. Its embrace of other minorities—ethnic, religious, sexual—strengthens this profile, and brightens the prospect of a future in which a CHP moving in similar progressive directions might join forces with it. Erdoğan may not have foreseen that he was dealing with a party “whose purpose,” as his lieutenant Bülent Arınç now infers, “is to destroy the AKP.” Neither the HDP nor any other party will accomplish this task alone. That they are seriously trying is already good news.




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