For weeks, Turkey has been engulfed in political and constitutional crisis, culminating in huge street protests in Ankara and Istanbul, a threat by the military against the government, and the intervention by the legal courts to stop a second round of presidential elections. Many commentators portray the crisis as a straightforward struggle between ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’. But the situation is more complex, reflecting a clash between competing sections of the ruling elites. The crisis led to millions of protesters, including many workers and youth, came onto the streets, but, unfortunately, the working class lacks a powerful socialist voice to further its interests.
The crisis started after the ‘mildly Islamist’ Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced he would not stand in presidential elections, following a huge anti-government protest, on 14 April. The prime minister then nominated the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, and a co-founder member of the ruling AK (Party for Justice and Development), ‘moderate’ Islamic party to stand. Although Gul is the only presidential candidate, Erdogan’s tactic did not stop ferocious opposition to his party taking over the presidential role. Elections to the post take place in parliament but the secularist opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) boycotted the first round of voting.
The Kemalist CHP has close links to the powerful military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey’s secular traditions. The CHP and military leaders whipped up fears of the "creeping Islamisation" of Turkey under the rule of the AK Party. They oppose an Islamist holding the post of president, which has wide powers, including blocking legislation, and appointing all judges. The president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the authority to appoint the uniformed chief of the army. The CHP know only too well that the president’s extensive powers can be used against other wings of government; the retiring president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a Kemalist, who steps down on 16 May, intervened against the AK government. The presidency also carries powerful symbolism for the CHP and military. It was first held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military/political leader who carved out the modern secular Turkish state, in 1923, from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire.
The CHP warns the AK Party will impose an Islamist agenda, if Gul were to hold the presidency, alongside the AK Party’s current domination of the government and parliament. Moreover, if Gul became president, it would mean Turkey’s ‘first lady’, in the person of Gul’s wife, Hayrunnisa, would wear a headscarf, which the CHP and army tops regards as a direct assault on Ataturk’s secular traditions.
Army issues warning to government
On Friday, 27 April, the army decided it had enough and its general staff posted a declaration on its website that attacked the nomination of Abdullah Gulf for the presidency, listed examples of how the AK Party were allowing the Turkey to drift towards an Islamic theocracy, and hinted at a coup against the government. This "e-coup" was widely regarded as a serious threat. Since 1960 the Turkish army intervened four times to overthrow governments. The brutal 1980 coup saw tens of thousands of activists, including many on the left, killed, jailed and tortured by the military. Just ten years ago, a previous ‘moderate Islamist’ government was ousted by the military, in what became known as the "post-modern coup".
The 27 April army announcement was followed by an enormous anti-AK government rally, of up to one million people. Under this military pressure, many Turks were unsurprised when Turkey’s highest court ruled, on 3 May, that the first round of a presidential election was invalid as it did not have a quorum. The Constitutional Court decision was highly controversial and AK supporters accused it of siding with the secularist elite. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the court decision "a bullet aimed at democracy".
Prime Minister Erdogan said he would go ahead with the presidential vote, on 6 May; a largely symbolic gesture, given the court ruling and opposition boycott. More importantly, the prime minister brought forward general elections, which looks likely to be held in late June. The AK Party is expected to win a second term in office, following five years in power and economic growth. Erdogan also announced plans to hold a referendum, perhaps on election day, if the AK fails to get opposition support to change the presidential elections so it is decided by popular vote rather than parliament.
Whatever the outcome of elections and referendums, the stage is set for more clashes between the AK government and the CHP and military leaders. These forces represent different interests of the ruling elites, big business and the huge military complex.
Seemingly paradoxically, the ‘Islamist’ AK government, is more pro-EU and pro-market economy. The Kemalist wing of the Establishment is mainly made up from the huge military and state bureaucracy and ferociously protects its power, privileges and influence. The secularists are closely linked to sections of big banks and big business.
For decades, the Kemalists held power, pursuing pro-capitalist policies and enriching themselves. In 2001, they presided over near financial meltdown. This led to a huge shake-up of the political system. Support for the old political parties collapsed.
In the absence of a mass socialist alternative, the AK Party was able to present itself as a party for the poor, particularly the rural poor, and came to power five years ago, in a landslide election victory in November 2002.
Parties needed to get 10% of the vote to enter parliament. The AK Party won 34%. The old right wing party got just 9.5%. With just 19% of the vote, the CHP is the only opposition party in parliament. This meant just under 54% of 2002 voters have ‘representation’ in parliament.
AK Party safe for capitalism
In office, however, the AK Party quickly showed international capitalism it was a safe pair of hands. The Turkish government agreed a draconian economic programme with the IMF in 2002. The economy grew on average 7% over the last five years, and attracted nearly $50 billion in foreign direct investment in three years. Inflation fell. But huge foreign debt remains a major burden and many working people are left behind. Nearly 24% of the population live on less than $4.00 per day and over 30% of under 15 year olds live with the ‘risk’ of poverty (Unicef, June 2006).
Despite its free-market policies failing to improve the lives of millions of working families, the populist AK still enjoys higher poll support than the divided opposition, including the CHP, which is out of power for more than a decade. The AK Party gets support from rural areas and from the millions of people from the Anatolia countryside that migrated to the big cities over the last few decades, particularly from conservative, small business people and traders.
These social forces, the so-called ‘White Turks’, on which the AK Party rest, act as a threat to the economic and political power of the Kemalist, secular elite. Although the AK Party espouses a relatively mild Islamist position, the party’s social conservatism provokes real anxiety and fear amongst sections of the urban middle class and working class. Many Turks regard the AK’s continuing domination of government as a threat to their hard won social rights. They point to attempts by the government to create ‘alcohol-free zones’ and to outlaw adultery, as evidence of serious, albeit failed, attempts by the AK Party to crack down on their rights.
This does not mean all the millions recently marching against government are supporters of the CHP or the military, which has a long, bloody history of crushing democratic rights. Marching alongside ‘traditional’ middle class Kemalist protesters on the recent huge anti-government protesters, where many workers and small farmers, suffering from the AK’s neo-liberal policies. During the second huge mass protest in a fortnight, on 29 April, many demonstrators chanted "no to coups" and "no to sharia". Many protesters were women.
The EU and the US reacted carefully to the crisis in Turkey, which is a big and strategically vital country, bridging Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East. It is a key military ally for the US, and has the second largest Nato force after the superpower. As well as the source of much of the Middle East’s water supplies, Turkey is a crucial energy access to Europe that avoids Russia.
Relations between Turkey and the EU are strained. Many European politicians oppose Turkish membership of the EU, which would bring 72 million mainly Muslim people, from a poorer and potentially unstable country into the Union, making it the largest member state. Although the Erodogan government eventually opened membership talks with the EU, there is no sign of Turkey joining the EU for decades.
US avoids clash with Turkish army
The EU mildly condemned the Turkish army’s coup threat and the US administration did not comment. The Bush administration’s influence in Turkey was greatly diminished by its invasion of neighbouring Iraq, which most Turks strongly oppose. The AK Party government was forced by popular pressure to refuse the US use of its territory to launch the invasion. The US also wants to avoid a clash with the Turkish military tops, one of whom recently said a military attack on Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq was "necessary" and "useful". As the Economist (5/05/07) spells out: "The nightmare for America is Turkish and American soldiers exchanging fire in Iraq."
Even if Erodogan’s AK Party wins general elections by a big majority, as expected, the fundamental fault lines within the Establishment will not be overcome. The prime minister may stick with foreign minister Gul as presidential candidate, or he may look for another candidate, perhaps outside of the AK Party, to try to defuse the situation. But, at best, this will only see a postponement of clashes between the vested interests of the AK Party and the opposing CHP and military.
The working class in Turkey needs its own independent voice, to provide a socialist alternative to the false promises of the political Islamists, the Kemalists and the army. Nationalist, secularist governments failed to develop living standards for decades. The Erodgan AK Party government shows that ‘mild’ Islamist government is no more in the interests of workers, the poor and youth, than the other variants of Islamic rule throughout the world.
Strong, fighting, independent trade unions, and a mass socialist party, which unites all workers in Turkey against the local bosses and imperialism, and their various political representatives, is the only way to find an end to poverty, joblessness and exploitation, and to defend and to extend democratic rights.
The struggle for democratic rights is a key issue. This May Day past, hundreds of marchers were severely beaten and detained by police after they managed to occupy Taksim Square, in Istanbul, for the first time since a May Day massacre of 34 workers by state forces at the same spot, in 1977.
Limited ‘reforms’ in the areas of women’s rights, Kurdish culture, language, education and broadcasting, and the abolition of the death penalty and ‘tougher measures’ against state torture, where mainly introduced by Erdogan in his bid to meet EU entry requirements. But the Turkish state still retains huge oppressive powers. For example, an article in the penal code makes it a crime to ‘insult’ Turkish national identity. Journalists are "still at the mercy of arbitary court decisions", according to Reporters Without Borders.
Struggling for democratic rights, and the national rights of the Kurdish minority, inevitably means the workers’ movement coming into collision with the Turkish state and the bosses, be that the Kemalist or ‘Islamic’ wings. The workers’ movement must, therefore, link the fight for democratic and social rights with the struggle for decent living conditions and for a socialist society.