Turkey: Sweeping election victory for pro-Islamist AKP party

But divided elites, social tensions and Kurdish question herald new crises

Results from Turkey’s general elections, on 22 July, show a landside vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, which has its roots in pro-Islamist ideology. It raised its vote by more than 12%, getting nearly 47% of the total poll. The poll outcome was welcomed by US and EU spokespeople and by the much of the West’s pro-capitalist media. While the Western powers harbour some concerns about even a "soft Islamist" party in power in Turkey, they are heartened by the neo-liberal, pro-big business record of the AKP in its first five years in office and hope more of the same during the new administration.

The AKP consolidated its position in power, after months of political and constitutional crisis. The crisis was sparked by a clash with Turkey’s powerful army generals in April over the AKP’s choice of presidential candidate. The election result is a big blow for the losing Republican People’s Party (CHP), getting 20.9% of the vote. The CHP is closely linked to the army tops and state bureaucracy. One of Turkey’s main ’traditional secular, liberal elite’ newspapers went as far as to claim that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vote showed "has been embraced by the people".

However, the situation remains complicated and potentially volatile. None of the deep divisions between the pro-Islamic government and the opposition ’secular’ Kemalist and nationalist parties – which are, to a large degree, a struggle for power, influence and riches amongst sections of the capitalist class and elites – are fundamentally resolved by the elections. If anything, the new divided parliament promises more conflict and instability, with the addition of opposition ultra-nationalists and Kurdish MPs for the first time in years.

In the last parliament, Erdogan ruled with little official opposition. The July 2007 result brings the AKP a much increased per centage support, but the party now has to contend with two main opposition parties and scores of ’independents’ also in parliament. Erdogan will need to try to work with the Kemalist and nationalist opposition to push through his ’reforms’.

Fourteen parties and 700 independent candidates fought for a total of 42.5 million eligible voters, on Sunday 22 July 2007. The turnout in the last general election, in 2002, was 79% (Voting is compulsory in Turkey but fines are rarely imposed for failing to go to the ballots). In this July’s election, which was "largely peaceful", according to election officials, the turnout was above 80%.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was returned to power, with nearly 47% of the vote (it won 34% in the last election, in 2002), and up to 341 seats in the 550-member parliament but the presence of opposition parties in the parliament means it will have fewer seats. The two main ’secular’ and nationalist opposition parties managed to get over the 10% hurdle needed to guarantee seats in parliament. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) got 20% (112 seats), just up by 1% from the last election. After huge pro-secular rallies this spring, many commentators expected the CHP to increase its votes significantly. It failed to do so, losing for the fifth consecutive time under current leader Deniz Baykal, who may be forced to resign. The elections represented big gains, however, for the ultra-nationalist Action Party (MHP) which won 14% (70 seats), and will re-enter parliament for the first time since 2002. Over 20 seats went to ’independent candidates’, including pro-Kurdish politicians. "The presence of Kurdish deputies and the Nationalist Action Party could be a potentially explosive mix in parliament," warns one commentator (BBC Online, 23/07/07).

The Kurdish question is a serious fault line in Turkish politics. The 30 year Turkish/PKK conflict cost nearly 40,000 lives. Although the Kurds are spread throughout Iraq, Iran and Syria, the vast majority – 15 million – live inside Turkish borders. Overcoming the 10% national barrier for parliamentary representation, the DTP party, an Kurdish nationalist party, won 23 seats (standing as ’independent’ candidates), and enter parliament for the first time since 1994.

Presidential crisis

The elections were brought forward by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan following three months of political and constitutional crisis. This was sparked off by the candidature of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the presidential elections. The ’secular state elite’, backed by the huge army apparatus, were outraged that Gul’s wife wears a Muslim headscarf, claiming this showed the AKP was jeopardising Turkey’s ’constitutionally enshrined’ secularism. The army chiefs felt their position would be threatened if an Islamist became president, particularly as the president appoints the heads of the armed forces.

Huge anti-government rallies of up to one million took place. Many people were genuinely worried about ’creeping Islamism’. But a popular street slogan,’No Sharia, no coup’, also revealed many protesters also opposed military intervention and attacks on Turkey’s limited democratic rights.

In April, army leaders posted a terse warning on their website, claiming the Justice and Development Party government strayed too far from secularism and made a veiled threat of a military coup, the so-called "e-coup". This threat had to be taken seriously. The military deposed four governments since the Turkish state was formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1923. A brutal 1980 coup, largely against the left, was followed by military pressure against Islamist politicians. In 1997, the military forced the Welfare Party (the predecessor of the AKP) out of government and the Welfare Party was banned in 1998.

This April, a Supreme Court hearing blocked Gul becoming presidential. In response, Prime Minister Erdogan announced the general election four months early, which many commentators described as a ’referendum’ on Turkey’s future.

Although the AKP took half of the total vote on Sunday, which commentators described as "the peoples’ ultimatum against military involvement in politics", Erdogan’s victory rally speech indicated the prime minister is keenly aware the composition of the new parliament reflects deep divisions in society. He appealed for "national unity" and celebrated "pluralist democracy". During the election campaign, Erdogan offered an olive branch to his Ankara elite opponents: "We are the strongest advocates of a democratic, secular, social state governed by the rule of law." Before the polls, Erdogan ’purged’ the AKP’s parliamentary list of ’religious conservatives’ and brought in female, ’liberal’and younger candidates. A Financial Times (London, 24/07/07) editorial bluntly stated the "head bangers of the failed Islamist movement", who made up many of the origins of the AKP, are now"extensively purged", including half of outgoing AKP MPs.

Kurdish question

In a gesture to the army and nationalists, Erdogan said Turkey would do "whatever was necessary" to fight ’separatist’ forces in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast. However, it is also reported that Erdogan may use his election victory to open ’dialogue’ with Kurdish rebels. To the alarm of the US and Western powers, Turkey’s army leaders are pushing Erdogan for a cross border offensive into northern Iraq to take on Kurdish rebels from the PKK (Workers’ Party) who operate from the ’autonomous’ Iraqi Kurdish entity. The US is opposed to a Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, the only relatively ’stable’ and pro-US part of Iraqi. Turkey is of the utmost importance to the US and the major imperialist powers. It represents NATO’s second largest armed force and the country is vital geo-strategic entity, bridging Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia.

In recent weeks, the Turkish army amassed tens of thousands of soldiers and military hardware on the Iraqi border. So far, Erdogan resisted demands for an invasion from the generals. However, using the military threat and the AKP landslide election win (including doubling the AKP’s vote in mainly Kurdish areas of Turkey, to secure 52% of the polls), Erdogan may demand concessions from US and Iraqi Kurdish leaders on the PKK issue, including pushing for a ’cross border crackdown’ on the PKK guerrillas. The last Erdogan government reportedly tried to open links with the Kurdish leadership but was blocked by Turkish top generals and the outgoing Kemalist president. Now Erdogan may feel confident to push for talks, which can earn the wrath of the army leaders.

The military option – an invasion into Kurdish Iraq – still exists. After all, Turkey carried out 26 ’cross border’ operations into Kurdish areas over the last 30 years. But an open-ended military operation into today’s Iraq could be far messier, with the prospect of Turkish forces getting bogged down in a disastrous "quagmire" confronting Kurdish guerrillas in mountainous northern Iraq.

Power struggle

Will Erdogan’s sops to the parliamentary opposition and army, and his apparently unassailable parliamentary position, be enough to bring about political and constitutional calm? Commentating on the contest between the government and the opposition, the International Herald Tribune (23 July 2007) stated "the struggle in Turkey is essentially one of power" (i.e. a struggle between rival factions of the capitalist class). Erdogan’s party "comes from a religious, merchant class in rural Turkey". The political and business elites in Ankara and Istanbul who traditionally ran Turkey – the army, police, state bureaucracy and judiciary – are under threat from a rising ’Muslim middle class’, which was formerly largely excluded from power and influence.

Since 1980, large scale migrations form rural areas to the cities created a growing religious middle class, whose AKP representatives are fighting for power within the state elite. The old ruling elite reacted angrily to the packing of state bodies with Erdogan’s religious cronies. The military was outraged by the AKP’s changes to Turkey’s institutions, removing much of the military’s influence from government and redrafting civil and criminal legislation, to try to qualify for EU membership.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) use the AKP’s growing influence to claim the government want to turn Turkey into a theocracy to whip up fears amongst the wider population, Ali Carkoglu, a Turkish elections analyst, commented: "Even if it’s not true, that campaign has been very successful. Up to 30% of the electorate believe in the nightmare scenario of a second Iranian revolution. Educated working women especially are worried that their daughters will find themselves in a country similar to Saudi Arabia or Iran in a few years."

Character of AKP

Over its first five years in power, the AKP showed it was a party with roots in Islam but it is not a fundamentalist, anti-Western party and not some type of anti-capitalist alternative. Erdogan’s boosted vote cannot be interpreted as a mandate for pro-Islamic ideology and policies. Taha Akyol, a columnist with the daily Milliyet, believes the AKP owes its increased parliamentary block to "a number of things – economic stability, the sense that it had been victimised by the state…by anti-democratic antics of secularists in and out of parliament". Nazli Ilicak, a pro-AKP analyst, remarked: "Without the military intervention, AKP could not have won more than 40 per cent of the vote."

The AKP election campaign emphasised its economic record, while the opposition parties focused on alleging the ruling party threatened Turkey’s secular system. Nationalists sported election badges that read, ’Ataturk will win the war’, and posters which declared, ’We won the Liberation War [1920s] despite the fanatics and we won’t lose now’.

Despite his ’Islamist firebrand’ youth, Erdogan now compares the AKP to Christian democrats in Western Europe; a ’conservative, democratic party based on religious values’. The British newspaper of big business, the Financial Times, takes a relaxed view of the AKP’s evolution: "The AKP is now a national conservative party – albeit rebalancing power away from the westernised urban elite and towards Turkey’s traditional heartland of Antolia – as well the Muslim equivalent of Europe’s Christian Democrats" (FT, 24/07/07).

The first AKP government pushed hard for EU membership, signed up to an IMF programme, strengthened ties with Israel and "broached" Turkey’s "long-standing festering problems" with its Kurdish national minority. Fortunately for Erdogan, his first tenure in office saw economic growth rates reach, on average, 7%. Erodogan’s neo-liberal policies saw runaway inflation fall, average income doubled (from a low level) and the country was opened to foreign investment. Big business invested US $70 billion in Turkish stock and bond markets.

Nationalist backlash

But society became more unequal, leaving many falling behind the economic boom, despite the AKP parading itself as the party of the poor. This fed a nationalist backlash. Nationalists accuse "the pro-Western, pro-market government" of "collaborating in foreigners’ efforts to divide the country". Violent attacks against ’pro-Kurdish’ accused writers and journalists, and murders and bombings, took place over the last few years, some of which were suspected to involved elements of the security forces. "The nationalist consciousness is awakening", claimed Erol Gul, a leader of the extreme nationalist MHP party, which returned to parliament on Sunday 22 July. The MHP has neo-fascist origins (’Grey Wolves’) and organises a paramilitary wing. Its leader campaigned in the elections with a hangman’s noose, indicating his ’solution’ to the Kurdish revolt in the country’s southeast.

Although Erdogan has a large parliamentary majority, he faces immediate enormous problems: deadlock with the opposition over a new president, military demands to invade Kurdish Iraq, EU membership negotiations stalemate, and the potentially growing threat of an army coup. The presidential issue is likely to be one of the first flashpoints facing the new government. On its own, the AKP party will not be able to get the two thirds majority needed in parliament to elect a new president .Erdogan hinted at agreeing a ’compromise’ president before the elections, but it remains to be seen if he follows this through or tries to have Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, re-selected, which could trigger a new confrontation with the Kemalists and army tops.

The AKP government’s first term ’successes’ are now becoming some of its chief weaknesses. Few Turks think the country will be allowed EU membership and most are highly sceptical or cynical about the Justice and Development Party’s attempts to join. Most EU states oppose the inclusion of Turkey for the foreseeable future, which they fear would mean bringing a large, unstable, Muslim country into the ’club’.

The AKP government also faces a worsening economic situation. Unemployment is now at 10%, the agricultural sector is in crisis, and the tax system is in chaos (Turkey’s ’unregistered economy’ is believed to be worth nearly 50% of the country’s GDP).

Workers’ alternative

All these factors show there has never been a greater need for a mass socialist opposition in Turkey. But working people did not have a strong socialist alternative at the polls. Parties that stood in the elections under a left banner, like the TKP (Turkish Communist Party) or ODP (Freedom and Solidarity Party) got small votes (less than 1% in both these cases), although the leader of the ODP got elected standing as an independent. A key task of the Turkish working class is to build a viable workers’ party that can seriously contend with the various political representatives of the Turkish ruling elites. Such a party must reject the failed policies that marked historically much of the Turkish left.

This includes opposing the Stalinist ’stages’ policies, which saw formerly powerful left forces sow illusions in so-called ’progressive’ wings of the capitalist class. There is absolutely nothing progressive about any section of the modern capitalist class or ruling elites. The army tops and the Kemalist and nationalist parties may talk about defending ’secular’, ’progressive’ and ’modern’ values but they will only use these terms to defend their ruling class interests. The army can once again resort to coups and other attacks on basic democratic rights: the 1980 military coup and reign of terror saw thousands of left activists and trade unionists jailed, tortured or murdered and left parties and workers’ organisations banned.

Despite the AKP’s pro-poor rhetoric, which swept it to power in 2002, after decades of Kemalist corrupt misrule and economic crisis, Erdogan’s party increasingly reveals itself as only representing a section of the elite and business class, while carrying out vicious anti-working class, neo-liberal policies.

To build a successful mass opposition, the Turkish workers’ movement, including unions, need to adopt independent class policies. This includes guaranteeing the rights of the oppressed Kurds. Such an appeal would allow working class unity across all national, ethnic and religious lines, creating the conditions for a mighty class alternative to the Turkish capitalist elites and their political representatives.

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