In the run-up to Turkey’s local elections on 30 March, tensions are rising. The death of the latest victim of police violence has triggered another mass uprising. The authoritarian and corrupt government is trying to cling on to power by fostering division – by stepping up state repression against opposition activists and by encouraging its own supporters by means of provocations.
The way in which Erdoğan is clinging on to power regardless of the cost is causing outrage. On 11 March, Berkin Elvan, the eighth victim of police violence, lost his fight for life. Berkin Elvan was on his way to get bread for breakfast on 16 June when he was hit in the head by a pepper-spray round. For 269 days, he fought for his life and on his 15th birthday he was in a coma. His murderers, just like those other perpetrators all other victims of state violence, are still free.
As the tragic news came through, another wave of anger at the government and at Prime Minister Erdoğan spread throughout Turkey. Demonstrations were called for the evening. But people began to gather in the morning. For example, a man carried out a sit-down protest on the steps leading into a park in the centre of Ankara. He sat down on the steps with a piece of bread and waited silently for hours. Within a short time, many people gathered around him. By the afternoon, there were several thousand. At the same time, students in many universities boycotted lectures and made their way to the city centre. A group of 5,000 students for METU (Technical University of the Middle East) were attacked on their way by the police. Although the demonstration was not due to start until 6.30pm, there were already thousands of people at the location by 3pm. With a mixture of sadness, anger and disgust in their faces, more and more people from all layers of society gathered – individually and in groups. University students, school students, industrial workers, office staff, left groups, Kurds and Alawites all joined together to chant: “The murderous state must be brought to account”, “Berkin’s murderer is the AKP’s police” or “Erdoğan, murderer!”By the time the police attacked from all sides, it was not even 6pm yet. First there was a single bang, and then another, and then a whole series of bangs like the sound of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. The crowd, which had been attacked without warning, ran into the clouds of smoke which blocked their escape routes and quickly covered the whole square. Running through traffic in the surrounding streets, people tried to protect their heads from the hails of gas pellets coming down from above, while running away. The police carried out merciless terror. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Cries could be heard, as well as the sounds of coughing and panicking people. After running for a while, the crowd had dispersed everywhere. A kind of running battle developed between the police and some young protestors, and continued late into the night.
The following day, 11 March, Berkin was buried. Hundreds of thousands of people attended his funeral in Istanbul. Directly after the burial of the youngest victim of the ‘Gezi rebellion’, there were further acts of police terror. The crowd was attacked with the same methods and more street battles with the police took place. Many people were injured and arrested.
Erdoğan’s dangerous tactics
Since the Gezi uprising, nothing has been the way it was before. In many ways, Erdoğan has suffered setbacks. His reputation as being invincible has been severely damaged by week-long mass protests. In addition to this, there were a number of revelations of major corruption scandals which lead to the resignation of four of his ministers. Behind these revelations, which caused a crisis of the state, is a bitter struggle between the government and its former ally, the ‘Gülen network’, named after the preacher Fetullan Gülen. He lives in the USA and represents a section of the Turkish bourgeoisie, through which it has influence in key areas of the police and justice system. While the government and the Gülen network, which Erdoğan refers to as a “parallel state”, trading blows, more dirt is coming to the surface. Every day new audio recordings of conversations are revealed, making the scale of the scandal ever clearer. In of these recordings, a telephone conversation between Erdoğan and his son, Erdoğan is heard informing his son about a police raid on the sons of ministers and advising him to get remove money from his home. It is clear from the conversation that the money belongs to Erdoğan and that the sums in question are very large. After further phone calls, Erdoğan’s son tells the prime minister that only the ‘small’ sum of 30 million euros remained.
There is a strong opposition mood against Erdoğan. As he is fearful that his opponents – the working class or sections of the ruling class – will hold him to account, Erdoğan cannot afford to back down. While Erdoğan cracks down on protests with increasing brutality, at the same time, he is taking steps to concentrate even more power in his hands. New laws give him control over the justice system. Investigations against army generals and members of the MIT intelligence services cannot be terminated without his permission. A new telecommunications body gives Erdoğan the opportunity for easier censorship, if he sees it as necessary.
There is a re-alignment underway among the ruling class. Until recently, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) party was part of a common front with the Gülen network, the employers’ associations, such as MÜSIAD and TUSKON, the so-called Anatolian bourgeoisie. The Kemalist opposition party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), the military and the association of the old bourgeoisie, TÜSIAD, made up the opposing front. It was the AKP which gained significant support in 2010 from a wide spectrum of left-liberal intellectuals and layers of society, because it stood up against the power of the military. In this context, a large number of people, including former members of the army general staff, were arrested and tried in the so-called Ergenekon trials, and last summer were sentenced to life in prison. While Erdoğan cast himself as a kind of public prosecutor, the CHP styled itself as the defence lawyer in this dispute. Now it is becoming clear that the wind can turn in the completely opposite direction, when the power of the ruling class is at stake.
Confronted with an increasingly radicalised mass movement and a new alliance of the Gülen movement and the CHP, the AKP is jumping into bed with the army and state forces. Since Berkin’s death, no military or police personnel are in jail. All of them, including murderers with the blood of Kurds and left activists on their hands, have been set free.
At the same time, Erdoğan is trying to shore up his base by means of fostering division. A few weeks ago, the CHP leader warned of rumours that the AKP will seek to escalate the situation by way of faked terrorist attacks and thus maybe even make elections impossible. The evening after Berkin’s funeral, a young AKP supporter was shot dead under very mysterious circumstances. Even though a left wing organisation claimed responsibility, this was clearly a provocation. During one of his election rallies, Erdoğan called Berkin a terrorist and incited the audience to boo the victim’s mother. He described the dead AKP supporter a “martyr”.
Where now for Turkey?
One thing is certain: The question is not if, but when Erdoğan will go. There is already a crisis of the state and the legal system is widely seen as bankrupt even. President Abdullah Gul challenged Erdoğan’s ban on twitter after the prime minister said he would “wipe out” the service, which he claims spread allegations of corruption in his ruling circles.
Many people speculate whether the elections at the end of March will take place or not. The government is trying to use censorship, increased state violence and undemocratic laws to sustain its power. It is preparing a major offensive, not just against the movement, but also against the opposing faction of the capitalist class.
Despite the fact that the opposition is becoming more radicalised by the day, the AKP still retains the largest support among the population, not least because of the relative stability of the economy. But they will suffer losses. The question is how much their vote will decrease by. It is very likely that there will be an early general election. Only this could temporarily calm the situation as it has been since the Gezi uprising because people will adopt a “wait and see” attitude. But all of this is still undecided.
For one year there have been no armed engagements in the Kurdish areas. This has had positive effects for the mass protests, making it harder for the regime to play the divide and rule card.
Up until now, the government has undertaken no steps towards improving rights for Kurds. Yet the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has given the government time to act until the elections. It is very clear that the government will not be able to take steps towards a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question and that the PKK will declare the negotiations have failed. It is also to be expected that the PKK will not opt for a return to armed struggle – which would have negative consequences for the mass movement in Turkey - but will put its faith in a mass movement in Kurdistan.
The Left is on the front line of the protest movement but its lack of political perspectives and programme prevents it from giving the movement clear direction. It is an accurate summary to say that the Left embraced the movement but the masses have not yet embraced the Left. However it is possible that there could be new developments in this regard after the local elections on 30th March.
These polls will be the first stage of significant political events which will play out in Turkey over the next few months and even years.
It is vital that the Left is built in this process, so workers and youth find the best possible way to build the workers’ movement. Marxist ideas are needed in this process to build towards a mass party, rooted in the working class, to show a way out of the nightmare of capitalism and repression.