Posted Under: Elections
Following on from yesterday’s article, we are very lucky this guest post by Michael Talbot, a PhD Researcher currently based in Turkey.
The bunting hanging across almost every street and the minivans blaring out propaganda songs announce season in Turkey, and scarce a street in Istanbul is without the posters and flags of the 25+ parties contesting this year’s general election on 12 June.
By far the most common displays of loyalty are for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/ Justice and Development Party), and the PM’s face, forward-looking and decisive, dominates billboards across the city. From boot-blacks to university students, AKP seems to have something that appeals to almost every section of society. Economic growth, improvements in higher education, strong international diplomacy, judicial reform, eroding the power of the Kemalist elite (particularly the army), these are just some of the reasons I have been given for why people will vote for Erdoğan, often beginning their explanations with, ‘I/my family have never voted for AKP before but…’
With unknown millions of lira poured into his election campaign, and with hundreds of thousands attending his party rallies across this vast country, it seems safe to say that Erdoğan will gain another four years of government. Much of the enthusiasm comes from the PM’s ‘Hedef 2023′ (2023 objective), a series of policies designed to demonstrate Turkey’s greatness and progressiveness in time for the centenary of the Republic’s founding. The vision includes plans to universalise healthcare, to reform the country’s energy consumption through both renewable sources and nuclear power, to expand domestic infrastructure and institute a Turkish space program. Foreign policy and the economy are the two main points of this objective. By 2023, Erdoğan’s Turkey aims to develop economic and political integration in its immediate neighbourhood (i.e. the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East) and, after a rather long wait, to become a full EU member state. All of this will be achieved by massive investment in the country’s economy, bringing down the perennially high unemployment figures through new industries and services aimed at the export market, the result of which will see Turkey zoom into one of the top ten world economies.
This is music to the ears of many. Although Turkey has been affected by the global financial crises, and possesses an ever-growing budget deficit, the AKP, by introducing tax-breaks for locally produced goods, has managed to stimulate industrial growth, despite losing much of its EU manufacturing market to China. Most importantly, the very fresh memory of the catastrophic market crash in 2001 – which resulted in insane inflation, a massive loss of the country’s foreign currency reserves, and mass unemployment – means that the current economic situation, and the promise of better to come, has won the party many supporters.
Moreover, the PM is planning hold a referendum after the election on a new constitution with wide-ranging political reforms, including an American-style presidential system, to replace the current constitution imposed after the 1980 Coup (with some judicial amendments approved with 58% support in last year’s referendum). This all sounds very promising to a large number of Turkish voters, especially here in Istanbul which, with 85 seats out of a 550-seat parliament up for grabs, is crucial for any electoral success.
But what about the opposition? The CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi/ Republican People’s Party), the party of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has been gaining some ground in these later stages of the campaign. Its incredibly charming leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed ‘Gandhi’ for his remarkable resemblance to old Mahatma, seems to be appealing to more and more people, which is not hard after replacing the very unappealing Deniz Baykal about this time last year. But the problem is, perhaps, that being so new a figure, it will take time for him to establish himself as a popular figure, although his book outlining his ideology seems to be doing quite well in the bookstores recently.
However the CHP does at the election, it will not face the problem of most political parties in Turkey. Under the PR system here, parties must attain over 10% of the national vote in order to gain representation in parliament. In the last general election in 2007, in addition to AKP and CHP, only the ultra-nationalist MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi/ Nationalist Movement Party) gained such a percentage (although a number of independents made it in). MHP, led by the sinister Devlet Bahçeli is currently mired in scandal, losing six major members after a rather dicey sex-tape was leaked to the press in mid-May, a big no-no for its conservative and rural support base. At the moment it seems likely to scrape past the electoral barrier, but a repeat of its huge successes in 2007 seems far off.
So that leaves another 25-or-so parties, often based on personality cults and splinter groups. For instance, the newly-formed HAS Parti (Halkın Sesi Partisi / Voice of the People Party) is the brain-child of an ex-member of the SP (Saadet Partisi / Felicity Party), and has developed a loyal and socially conservative fan-base almost solely around the leader’s charisma.
Most centre-left parties have merged with CHP, but there are still a number of more radical parties contesting the elections. Some are more visible in the public arena than others. The TKP (Türkiye Komünist Partisi / Communist Party of Turkey), whose campaign is running under the slogan ‘Boyun Eğme’ (don’t submit), has been leafleting in the heaving ferry terminals at Eminönü and Istanbul’s Oxford Street, İstiklâl Caddessi, as well as putting up posters and banners all over the centre of the city.
Smaller groups include EMEP (Emek Partisi / Labour Party), whose support-base seems to be growing, and which is associated with one of the few genuinely left papers Turkey, Evrensel (Universal). There are two parties that specifically class themselves as ‘libertarian socialist’ (özgürlükçü sosyalist), essentially loose associations of various socialist and anarchist groups, the EDP (Eşitlik ve Demokrasi Partisi / Equality and Democracy Party) and ÖDP (Özgürlük ve Dayanışma Partisi / Freedom and Solidarity Party), which is dominated by the Dev Sol (Revolutionary Left), a radical movement that has struggled since the 1970s against the Kemalist establishment, fascist militias, and Islamists. The İP (İşçi Partisi / Workers’ Party) hold a bizarre mix of policies, based in part on Maoism and Kemalist nationalism.
The left in Turkey suffers from the same problems as its comrades abroad, large egos and continual disagreement over dogma. Although there are frequent protests, in Istanbul and Ankara for rights for LGBTT, women, and minorities, as well as anti-NATO actions and an attempted occupation of Istanbul’s Taksim Square in protest over moves to build new nuclear plants in Turkey, these actions attract anything from a few dozen to maybe a couple of thousand, nothing more. Between them, the parties above may receive, judging on various polls and previous results, these various left parties might receive between 1 to 1.5% of the national vote.
The party to watch, in terms of its electoral success and post-election actions, will be the BDP (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi / Peace and Democracy Party). The BDP has its predecessors have often been described as ‘Kurdish’ parties, but it is really much more complex. Yes, a lot of its support base comes from Kurds, but many Turkish progressives also support the party; yes it attracts many Kurdish nationalists, but also those who see the Kurds’ struggle against Turkey as a means to fight both kinds of nationalism. The BDP will do will, gaining perhaps 5.5 to 6% of the vote on a good day, but, of course, this is still well below the necessary 10% for representation. Although Turkish politics is prone to shock results now and then, it seems unlikely that the party can break that barrier.
This electoral barrier is therefore a huge problem for left parties in Turkey. It creates a bi-partisan system, where the AKP and CHP dominate, the system discouraging people from voting for TKP/EMEP et. al. on account of the 10% barrier making them seem like wasted votes. And raising mass movements is incredibly difficult. There are two main reasons for this which I will briefly explain, based on conversations at protests and emails with different activists and journalists in Istanbul from different parties and ideologies.
One major problem is AKP’s use of Islam as a political discourse. Whenever in conversation the occasional cooperation between certain left and Islamist groups in Europe, and the concept of Islamophobia in the UK has come up, the overwhelming response here has been one of dismay. ‘Let them see what Islam has done here,’ one activist told me, ‘and they will think twice about cooperating with these people.’ Far from criticising the role of Islam in politics from the perspective of Kemalist laïcité, the left in Turkey views Islam as reactionary, and its influence on AKP’s policies as fundamentally damaging to Turkey’s most oppressed. Erdoğan recently dismissed Kurdish nationalism, arguing that they were all brothers in Islam. The recent protest commemorating the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Mavi Marmara was not so much a rally in support of the Palestinians as a demonstration of AKP’s power. Many of the activists I have spoken to believe that the AKP’s focus on the issue of Palestine distracts from Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds. Moreover, thousands of supporters chanting ‘Allahu Ekber’ in the secular heart of Istanbul was a clear message to political opponents that, in a country where such a rally would have been unthinkable even ten years ago, AKP has the power and influence mobilise thousands of angry people on demand.
AKP publicises the ‘good works’ of various Islamic philanthropists, foundations and charities which provide some relief for the poverty-stricken. These are supported by but not funded by the government, thus removing the expense of welfare from the state. Such institutions do little to alleviate the massive problems of widespread child labour, lack of pensions and support for the elderly, oppression of women (no, not the headscarf issue but honour killings, marital rape, and general forced subservience to men for a large number of women), oppression of minorities, and sub-standard housing. Education is becoming a big problem, with a growing emphasis on Islamic education and schools, and increased government funding to religious schools, which do not provide a suitable education, unless you consider studying one book over and over again to be sufficient. At the same time, secular state schools are threatened with cuts and privatisation, leading to the formation of groups such as Okuluma Dokunma İnisiyatifi uniting students and activists to protect their institutions.
So the Islamic element is a problem, but it is by no means the biggest. When posed the question, ‘what are the biggest challenges facing progressives in Turkey today?’, one activist/journalist responded simply:
‘Freedom of expression! It is possible for you to find yourself in court facing the judge right after you opened your mouth. There are some other important problems, but this is so fundamental a problem.’
There are elements of this linked to the Islamic factor, with various AKP initiatives being proposed (and in some places implemented) to curb alcohol consumption and (sorry Reuben) smoking as detrimental to public morality and health – some worry that Islam will replace Kemalism as the new censor, although this seems unlikely. The biggest problem here is that Turkey still suffers from huge violations of rights of protest and speech. Journalists are very often harrassed, with kidnappings and murders a hazard of the job. Political prisoners are still tortured. Police and military go unpunished for their brutality. Those attempting to express any opinion on ‘sensitive’ issues such as the right of Kurdish self-determination and the ‘events of 1915′ can get in serious trouble. With the army on the back foot following allegations of an attempted coup a few years ago, the police have become increasingly employed as the strong arm of the government. Just two days ago, a demonstration in Istanbul by mothers of men murdered in police custody attracted the attention of several coach-loads of heavily armed police who intimidated them and threatened force against them.
But resistance is always there, from bereaved wives to enraged students. Many have asked me if the Kurds or others will take a leaf from the Arab world. The fact is that those struggling for equality and justice in Turkey have plenty of experience, and plenty of ideas. Both the Kurdish population and the radical left have fought a war for many decades, both rhetorically and physically, against the forces of the Kemalist establishment and now the AKP. From the throwing of eggs at politicians visiting university campuses to the full-scale riots in Hopa when Erdoğan visited last week (brutally suppressed by the police), from the increasing graffiti campaigns in the major cities to growing mobilisation of activists, it seems that something is brewing. Several activists I have spoken too have told me that big unrest is being planned should AKP gain a large majority in these elections, primarily nonviolent civil disobedience, but more drastic measures too. Whether this is just bravado or not will have to be seen, but it is clear that although many are happy with what AKP has been doing in Turkey, there are others who see that its reforms and Erdoğan’s visions will not only fail to tackle the huge disparities in wealth and massive social and political injustices in the country, but indeed deepen them.
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