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Turkey: Elections could see the end of Erdogan

Dilara Lorin

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due in Turkey on 14 May. They could prove decisive for the fate of the Erdogan regime.

The president and the ruling coalition, led by the Justice and Development Party, AKP, undoubtedly speculated on at least a temporary recovery of the economy when they set the election date. But this has failed to materialise. On the contrary, high inflation rates and a high level of debt, but also the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, continue to severely affect the economy. Added to this is the devastating earthquake of 6 February in which over 50,000 perished and at least two million lost their homes.

Beyond this there is the impoverishment caused by Erdogan’s policies that favour the country’s capitalists, particularly his own cronies, and the corruption of his regime. These policies have not only plunged millions into poverty, but also cost thousands of people their lives.

Those who have suffered most are the working class and the oppressed minorities of the country, as they have to shoulder the burden of the economic crisis. But even the middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie now have doubts about the regime.

Erdogan’s election campaign

The very fact that Erdogan, in power as prime minister and then as president for 20 years, is being allowed to run again shows how adaptable to authoritarianism Turkish “democracy” is. According to the constitution, a president is supposed to rule for only two terms.

How did he manage this?

A referendum in 2018 legitimised it and simultaneously strengthened his Bonapartist rule with a constitutional amendment that allows the president to be head of government and president at the same time.

The referendum also allowed Erdogan to run for president again in 2023, despite having already served two terms, those before 2018 are not counted. Moreover, by bringing the election forward to mid-May, Erdogan can even plead to be allowed to run again in the following election.

Still, opinion polls are showing that the result could be very close. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round of the presidential election, which is very likely, a run-off will be held two weeks later.

The parliamentary elections will choose 600 deputies for the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. These seats will be divided among the country’s 81 provinces, how many a province gets is determined in proportion to its population. For a party to enter parliament, however, it must pass an undemocratic 10% threshold.

What is the current mood among the population?

The government is currently formed by a coalition of Erdogan’s AKP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP. In recent years, the AKP regime has not only been characterised by authoritarianism, repression, regional power ambitions and permanent war, especially against the Kurds in its own country and in Rojava. The AKP has also been repeatedly torn apart by conflicts, as a result of which some MPs and members have left the party.

At the same time, a further strengthening of the Erdogan-centred Bonapartism is also taking place within the AKP. Critics were excluded or left its ranks. In this way, Erdogan is personally holding the party and the regime together more and more. Therefore, his supremacy is not necessarily a sign of strength but, involuntarily, of the weakness of a regime tailored to a “strong man” who is now showing signs of being quite sick.

After the last elections in 2018, the AKP had to enter into a coalition with the MHP because it could not win an absolute majority on its own. The MHP is an extreme right-wing nationalist party, closely linked to the fascist and militantly organised Grey Wolves. Like other proto-fascist and extreme reactionary forces, they are seen as the reserves of a Bonapartist regime, albeit one that still relies mainly on control of the state apparatus, the media, an electoral machine, backed by sections of capital, broad layers of the petty bourgeoisie, the conservative middle classes and even backward, nationalist layers of workers and the poor. Chauvinism, nationalism and the ideological reassertion of “Ottomanism”, which are supposed to consolidate a regional leadership role, are as much a link in this alliance as Erdogan as an outsized leadership figure who represents the unity of thoroughly heterogeneous forces.

Large parts of the population are also turning away from him and the AKP and MHP regime. Inflation and the steady fall of the lira are pushing Turkey’s middle class, which flourished during the early years of the AKP government, more and more to the margins. Some of them are more hostile to the government than before. The earthquake and the increasingly obvious grievances, the rampant nepotism and corruption scandals have further discredited the government.

Growing sections of these strata are now placing their hopes in Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, CHP, in the coming election. It is often only a few percentage points behind the AKP in the polls and has seen gains of up to 5% compared to the 2018 elections, with the AKP suffering a loss of as much as 11.5%. In the current polls, the two blocs are neck and neck, depending on which polling institute you take. In any case, the CHP-led opposition alliance has a realistic chance of winning both the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The six-party opposition

Dissatisfaction with the AKP/MHP regime is the opposition’s biggest asset. It insists that everything will be better when Erdogan and the AKP are no longer in power.

However, the bourgeois-nationalist opposition alliance keeps a low profile in terms of the content of its programme. How it wants to fight inflation and poverty, what policy it would pursue towards the oppressed nationalities and above all the Kurds, it leaves open, at best. A withdrawal from Syria, an abandonment of Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions are of course not to be expected under the CHP. What it promises is an end to Erdogan’s repressive policies towards the media and a more a friendly attitude towards NATO and the West.

In order to break the AKP and Erdogan’s majority, the CHP calls itself “social democratic” but has always been an openly bourgeois nationalist party. Its founder was none other than Kemal Ataturk. It has formed an alliance with five other bourgeois forces, including right-wing or extreme nationalist and Islamist opposition parties. In many ways this alliance of horrors mirrors the AKP-MHP alliance. The fact that it is accepted and seen by the population as an alternative, or at least a lesser evil, clearly shows that the electorate is far less captivated by Erdogan than it was in 2015/2016.

In order to get rid of him, many, including left-wing and progressive people, are pinning their hopes on the opposition . Given 20 years of the AKP regime, it is certainly understandable that many leftists, oppressed people, women and large parts of the LGBTIAQ community are eagerly hoping for the fall of a tyrant. And, of course, all class-struggle, indeed all democratic forces, also want to see him and the reactionary AKP fall. But a victory for the CHP-led opposition will not bring real freedom, peace or improvement in the lives of the oppressed and workers.

On the contrary, it would ultimately only seek to continue the capitalist, authoritarian regime under different auspices. The Kemalist CHP is contesting this election with an electoral alliance consisting of a group of six parties. This alliance is also called “Altılı Masa”, the Table of Six, by the media. In addition to the CHP, the Good Party (İYİ Parti) the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi) the Democrat Party (Demokratik Parti, DP), the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi GP) and the Demokrasi ve Atılım Partisi (DEVA) are participating. Four of the six parties already ran as the “National Alliance” in 2018. The İYİ Party, a nationalist split from the MHP, has come to around 10% in the elections in recent years and is therefore seen as the second strongest force after the CHP at the Table of Six.

The fact that the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) did not get a seat at the “table” is mainly due to the İYİ Parti, which is extremely chauvinistic and calls for the suppression of HDP and other Kurdish organisations as “terrorists”. The CHP and the other parties at the “table of six” submitted to this veto without much discussion.

The biggest conflicts in the unstable alliance were over the question of which candidate(s) would top the list and the distribution of future influence, should the elections be won. A possible CHP-led government will be marked by major internal contradictions, probably greater than the current government. If it wins, sooner or later the different interests of right-wing, ultra-conservative, nationalist, Islamic and liberal-reformist currents will break out.

No vote for the CHP and Kılıçdaroğlu!

Even though the CHP and the Table of Six may appear to many as a lesser evil, workers, leftists, oppressed minorities, the women’s and environmental movements should not trust them and should not give them their votes.

In reality, that would only strengthen a capitalist alternative to Erdogan, an alternative bourgeois-nationalist coalition that is ultimately closer to the AKP than to the workers and oppressed on all fundamental economic, geopolitical and even democratic issues. It, too, would represent an economic policy in the interest of Turkish capital. Like Erdogan before, they may promise some improvements for the poor but, in the end, it will be the masses who pay the cost of the crisis, which it wants to overcome with an austerity programme and privatisation, through price increases, cuts, attacks on labour and trade union rights.

The opposition rejects the repeal of anti-union laws. For the oppressed minorities, above all for the Kurdish people, there will be no self-determination under the CHP either, even the political prisoners will not be released. It will continue to intervene militarily against Rojava and the PKK. It will continue to crack down on refugees. It promises to deport the majority of all refugees in the next two years. The Turkish army will continue to wreak havoc in Syria. The regime, like Erdogan, will crack down on the refugees and pursue its geostrategic interests.

In view of the deep contradictions amongst the Table of Six, the economic crisis and the attacks on the working class that are necessary from the point of view of the ruling class, a President Kilicdaroglu will also resort to the Bonapartist powers that Erdogan has introduced. His rule will also have to rely on the existing state and military apparatus, which implies an agreement with the people placed at the head of the institutions by the AKP.

Would Erdogan accept defeat?

This becomes all the more likely as it is by no means certain that Erdogan and the AKP would accept any electoral defeat. Already, Trump and Bolsonaro claimed that, if they lost, it would be because of electoral fraud. Erdogan and the AKP undoubtedly have even stronger support in Turkish society and the elite than Trump in the US and Bolsonaro in Brazil. On the other hand, a coup attempt would further destabilise the country. Therefore, it is also questionable whether the AKP as a whole, the MHP and the military would stage a coup.

Nevertheless, the danger certainly exists. Thus, some speak of the calm before the storm when it comes to the AKP and Erdogan. The latter seems to be rather calmer in politics at the moment, if one compares his current election propaganda with that before the last two elections. Many people nevertheless describe the ballot on 14 May as a fateful choice between democracy and autocracy.

The question “What’s next?” is divided into the phase before and after the election. Before the election, it is still unclear whether and how the up to 3.7 million people from the earthquake-affected areas will be able to vote. Many are unable to leave their villages to vote in the cities, many are outside their hometowns and have no idea how to use their vote. And the electoral authority has not commented on either so far. It is no secret that Erdogan has and will continue to manipulate and rig elections. Observers assume that up to 2 million votes were falsified in the referendum on the constitutional amendment alone.

It is not surprising that Kurdish, left-wing politicians and critical journalists are already subject to repression. The fact that it is especially difficult for minorities to run in elections was already observed in 2018, and this does not seem to be improving this time, but rather worsening.

The Left

In order to avoid a possible party ban shortly before the elections, the candidates of the HDP are running this time in the form of the Green Left Party, Yeşil Sol Parti, YSP. Together with other left parties, it forms the “Alliance for Labour and Freedom”.

Within this framework, the HDP is the most important force for many leftists, trade unionists, the LGBTIAQ community and parts of the Kurdish minority. Repression against the party’s MPs and members is immense. In May 2016, the AKP government stripped 138 MPs of their immunity. Co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdaş have been in pre-trial detention ever since, along with several other MPs.

The CHP also played an important key role in this dirty business because it was only with its votes that the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament could be achieved and thus the lifting of immunity pushed through. After the 2019 local elections, the government removed 47 of the 65 elected HDP mayors and appointed its own people as forced administrators. Turkish Prosecutor General Bekir Şahin filed a motion to ban the HDP with the Constitutional Court on 17 March 2021. That the HDP and its structures are systematically attacked and repeatedly crushed is nothing new and the waves of arrests and defamation have not abated in recent years.

The TIP, the Turkish Workers’ Party, is the second strongest force in the alliance. The Labour Party, EMEP, the Workers’ Movement Party, EHP, the Federation of Socialist Councils, SMF, and the Social Freedom Party, TÖP, are also involved. In addition, most of the left trade unions are calling for the HDP or the YSP in the parliamentary elections.

The six parties are running on a joint list in the election, but all member parties can also run with their own names and lists. This was achieved as a compromise because previously the TIP in particular had insisted on standing for election with its own lists of candidates and its own logo in places where it had regional priorities.

The fact that the TIP and the HDP are also fielding people from the LGBTIAQ community and from the country’s various minorities as candidates is a step forward compared to the other parties. The failure of the “Alliance for Labour and Freedom” to nominate a presidential candidate is a big mistake and also clearly shows its political weaknesses. More or less openly, there is a call for Kilicdaroglu at least in the second round.

Even though the CHP has noncommittally stated at a press conference that it will carry forward the concerns of the HDP, the issue of the Kurds, etc., we know from history, but also from the assessment of the Table of Six, that this is an outright lie.

During the election, there are issues on which the left clearly distinguishes itself from the reactionary and openly bourgeois forces: the question of refugees in Turkey, the rights of the Kurds and all oppressed minorities, dealing with the earthquake and its consequences, and how the economic crisis and the miserable situation of the working class can be improved without putting this on the shoulders of the workers. And once again, the reactionary vein of the CHP is revealed. In recent years and months, the way in which its deputies incite against refugees in parliament and in public speeches has become increasingly explosive.

The “Alliance for Labour and Freedom” is a left alliance candidacy, but not a revolutionary force based on a clear anti-capitalist programme of socialist revolution. Rather, it is an alliance with a petty-bourgeois nationalist force, the HDP, which is based mainly on Kurdish workers and peasants, but also petty-bourgeois and small entrepreneurs. Even though it has developed more in the direction of the trade unions in recent years and has important influence and links with the DISK, it is not a bourgeois workers’ party, but rather a hybrid of petty-bourgeois nationalism, Stalinism, populism, and left reformism.

The other parties in the coalition are all reformist workers’ parties, often with a Stalinist orientation or roots, but with some roots in the working class in individual regions and sectors.

In the parliamentary elections, the League for the Fifth International calls for critical vote for the “Alliance for Work and Freedom”. This is the only force with mass support from the working class and the oppressed Kurds that represents a progressive alternative to the two bourgeois-reactionary blocs of AKP/MHP on the one hand and CHP/Table of Six on the other.

At the same time, however, we criticise the programme of the electoral bloc. Even if many of the social and democratic promises are themselves worthy of support, such as standing up for the working people, the trade unions, the democratic rights of the Kurds and other national minorities, it does not go beyond democratic reformist promises. At best, it is linked to the idea of a socialist future, but without linking the current demands for reform with concrete transitional solutions.

Secondly, the alliance behaves opportunistically towards the CHP, the Table of Six and Kilicdaroglu. Their policies are not openly criticised as anti-bourgeois and anti-worker but glossed over as a lesser evil compared to Erdogan. This fails to prepare the workers, the urban poor and the oppressed for the onslaught of a possible CHP-led government now and to build resistance to any coming one. Of course, this would include taking to the streets against a possible coup attempt by Erdogan should he lose the election. But it also means, above all, preparing the masses for any form of struggle against the next government.

Although it would be an important sign for all the oppressed, the workers and the poor if the list could get over the 10% hurdle, at the same time, revolutionaries in Turkey must intervene in these elections with two central thrusts.

Firstly, they must demand from all forces of the “Alliance for Work and Freedom” to build a united front of all workers’ organisations, the HDP, the trade unions, the environmental movement, the women’s movement against the attacks of the next government. The 10th anniversary of the Gezi protests on 24 May could be an important first focus of mobilisation and thus also develop social explosive power.

Secondly, revolutionaries must stand up for an open discussion in the alliance itself on the question of what party the working class and oppressed in Turkey need. In our opinion, a real, revolutionary workers’ party is needed – and this requires breaking with the vacillation between left petty-bourgeois nationalism and “left” party projects without a clear class political orientation, as well as with Stalinist and left reformist traditions.

Such a party can emerge, but only if the common struggle is combined with a political-programmatic break towards a workers’ party based on a programme of transitional demands to lead the workers and oppressed to socialist revolution. This is not a question of a distant future, but arises in the class struggle. The economic situation cannot be straightened out with a few reforms. Only the working class can do this by advocating the expropriation of the factories and corporations under its control, an emergency programme for the victims of the earthquake disaster, the reorganisation of the economy according to a democratic plan in the interest of the masses.

Thirdly, we have to take seriously the possibility that Erdogan and the AKP might either blatantly try to steal the election or try to hold onto power, claiming electoral fraud. Though the working class and all progressive forces should not have illusions in the CHP opposition, they should at once mobilise the trade unions, the progressive parties, the movements of women and the nationally oppressed in a general strike to stop Erdogan’s clinging to power. Were he to succeed, repression would likely be even worse than after July 16 abortive coup.

But the goal of defeating him should be more than a negative one. The movement should go on to demand the election of a sovereign constituent assembly to sweep away the whole Bonapartist system and to address the social and political demands of the workers, urban and rural, the oppressed nationalities, particularly the Kurdish people.

Such fundamental measures cannot be implemented with the existing capitalist state apparatus, on the road of reform. They can only be implemented through a movement of the workers and oppressed, through nationwide mass strikes, through occupations of the factories, through the establishment of councils and self-defence organs of the masses in all regions, through a force that can sweep away the Bonapartist authoritarian state apparatus and bring a government of workers and peasants to power instead.


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