Referendum in Turkey: Erdoğan tries to change the balance of forces

CHP offers no alternative

On 12 September, the 30 anniversary of Turkey’s military coup (see: article on this putsch), Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan will try to change the balance of forces in Turkey. With a referendum on constitutional amendments, he wants to get more control over the courts, prosecutors and the army and give a blow to the influence of the “Kemalists”, who represent the Turkish capitalists’ more secular wing. The fundamental problems facing workers, including the national question, will not be solved by either of the capitalist wings. Workers need their own independent organisations, but should use the issue of the referendum to advance their own demands and strengthen their own voice.

There is a highly politicised atmosphere in Turkey. The summer was used by all parties to launch their campaigns on the coming referendum as a testing ground for the national elections in June 2011. Almost every small city and village was infested with politicians from all parties arguing their case.

The new leader of the CHP (Republican People’s Party, Turkish: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, attacks the government for defending the tradition of the military coup. The CHP is the traditional “Kemalist” party, which claims to be left-wing, but has never even been a social democratic workers’ party. Kemalism is the ideology launched by Kemal Attatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state in the 1920s. He aimed to modernise Turkey from the top down, in order to develop a capitalist economy, establishing a secular state with a nationalist, anti-imperialist ideology, which at the same time opposed self-determination for the Kurdish and Armenian minorities. Traditionally the CHP maintained close links with the military but now, under its new leader, is trying to present itself in a different manner.

Erdoğan portrays himself as a democrat and chose deliberately the 12 September anniversary for the day of the referendum to use the strong mood that exists against the military coup of 1980 in his favour.

The referendum is mainly about minor changes to the constitution, which was originally written in 1982 by the leaders of the coup. These proposals formally give more rights for women, children and the disabled (allowing for positive discrimination and including some phrases against violence against children). They also give workers in the public sector more rights to strike (including for collective bargaining) but fall short of those that workers in the public sector have already won for themselves in struggle. However, the decisive changes are related to the power the AKP (Justice and Development Party, Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) government wants to use over the judges and prosecutors and, to a lesser extent, over the army.

As the Turkish courts are known for their political approach towards their cases, they do not have a reputation for democracy. Turkey is a graveyard of banned parties, especially Kurdish formations. Just in December 2009, the strongest Kurdish party, the DTP, was dissolved. The conservative, Islamic parties have also regularly been subject to legal proceedings.

At the same time AKP control over the courts will not benefit working people. After the Tekel workers’ months-long struggle against the impact of privatisation, the court’s judgement at their trial backed the workers against the AKP government. Workers who followed this important struggle will not want the AKP to win more control over the judiciary.

Neo-liberal AKP government

The AKP has been in government since 2002. For eight years, it ruled in the interests of Turkish capitalism and the imperialist powers in Europe and the US.

This helped the capitalists in Turkey to recover from their 2001 disaster, when the economy completely collapsed, with GDP falling by 7%. A social earthquake shook the whole political establishment. This was the background to the rise of the AKP. Coming from a background of right-wing political Islam, its leaders developed the newly formed organisation as a more moderate Islamic party but with a neo-liberal agenda. Given the collapse of the old parties and the lack of a left, working-class alternative, the AKP was able to find mass support, at the same time as alienating sections of workers and the poor because of its policies of cuts and privatisation and fears of ‘Islamisation’.

The AKP government brought some economic stability, backed by the boom between 2002 and 2008. Huge privatisation projects were imposed, like the complete smashing of the former state monopoly in alcohol and tobacco production, organised through the Tekel company. 50,000 workers lost their jobs. When the last 12,000 were attacked, they went on strike and occupied the streets of Ankara for 77 days during winter 2009/10.

Privatisations are continuing and there are plans for more – electricity distribution in Izmir and the European side of Istanbul was just sold for $5 billion to a consortium headed by a personal associate of Erdoğan and a businessman who was recently convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to 11 years in jail.

Erdoğan wants to kill two birds with one stone with the referendum. He wants to win control over the courts, including limiting the danger of his party being banned, and he is trying to position himself well for next year’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for June.

Capitalists are re-building the CHP

The CHP and the far-right MHP (Nationalist Movement Party or Nationalist Action Party, Turkish: Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) are campaigning for a no vote in the referendum. The CHP wants mainly to defend its Kemalist allies in the courts and military and to weaken the AKP’s support.

However the way the CHP acts is new. In May, the longstanding leader of the CHP, Deniz Baykal, was forced to resign after a moralistic campaign against him following the appearance of a sex video on the internet, showing him with another CHP MP in bed – both married to other partners. The way in which the Turkish media jumped on the scandal and the new elected leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, showed that this was used by at least a wing of the capitalists to change the CHP’s course, install a new leader and rebuild the CHP and its reputation as a populist sounding “safe” capitalist alternative to the AKP.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu

Given Turkey’s economic weakness in 2009 – with a drop in GDP of 4,7%, according to the IMF – the stability of the AKP government was put into question. Erdoğan had to base himself more on islamic moods to defend his power. This showed the Turkish capitalists and the imperialist powers that the dream of a long, ongoing AKP-based stable government might be over sooner than they had hoped.

Therefore they have continued to support the re-building of the stricken CHP, despite a recovery in 2010 with the government predicting 7% growth.

Kılıçdaroğlu has distanced the CHP from the military to a previously unheard of extent. He now attacks Erdoğan as being linked to the military commanders, even to the 1980 coup. He has adopted a more left wing profile, stating that “We are opposed to the brand of unregulated capitalism that Erdoğan has imposed. We want a social market economy. Who is actually profiting from economic growth in Turkey? The differences in incomes here are enormous. At the same time, no new jobs are being created.” (Spiegel online, 24/8/2010)

Re-awakening workers’ movement

2010 saw important steps in the re-awakening of the once-strong Turkish workers’ movement. The left had never recovered from the bloodbath and repression following the coup of 1980 but the Tekel workers’ struggle showed a new vigour in the workers’ movement. Smaller industrial conflicts around Taris and other companies were fought and on 1 May 250,000 workers showed their strength in Taksim square in Instanbul for the first time since the massacre of 1977.

The Turkish capitalists are attempting to use the referendum to force the workers back into the strait-jacket of choosing between their two parties, while at the same time using them as foot-soldiers in their rivalry. But such is the degree of politicisation in society that they might not be able to ride this tiger for much longer. The ongoing battles between the different capitalist parties will present opportunities to the working class. Their role as foot-soldiers has brought them onto the battlefield, but in the process they can discover and begin to struggle for their own interests even against those capitalists who first called them to enter the dispute.

Tekel workers’ struggle

It is therefore vital that workers and youth have an independent voice and programme to enable them to fight for their own interests.

The left and the referendum

The Turkish left is divided. A large number maintain their traditional links with Kemalism, as they characterize this wing of the capitalist as ‘progressive’, defending against the reactionary Islamisation of society.

The newly-formed TKP (a Stalinist party, with around 10,000 members, mainly recruited in the last few years) calls for a no vote, along with the ÖDP (a party created in 1996 as a coalition of several groups of the radical left which later split; the ÖDP is a member of the European Left Party). They are not as critical of the Kamalists as they are of the AKP.

A small section of the left calls for a yes vote, arguing that the new constitution may be the stepping stone to further gains. But this does not seem to hit home with the mood of many workers.

The pro-Kurdish left party BDP calls for a boycott of the referendum as it does not offer anything for the rights of Kurdish people. However, a lot of Kurdish people fear a victory of the Kemalists who have, particularly in the military, repeatedly escalated the Kurdish conflict to shore up their own support among Turkish people. Under the AKP government, some small improvements were achieved so Kurdish businessmen now openly call for a yes vote and the PKK and its leader, Öcalan, are mainly looking for some concessions from the AKP government to allow them to change their position from a boycott to support for a yes vote.

The trade unions are divided. The largest, Türk Is says no but is not running a campaign, and its different branches take different positions. The Islamic union confederation, Hak Is, argues strongly for a yes vote. DISK, with its bureaucracy traditionally close to the CHP, are campaigning strongly for no. KESK, where some forces of the radical left have influence, do not take a formal position as this might risk a split. Some parts in KESK tend more towards to the position of boycott because of the Kurdish influence, but many of its branches campaign for a no.

A small section of the Turkish left, for example SDH (Movement for the Permanent Revolution, Turkish: Sürekli Devrim Hareketi) argue that a constitution in the interests of workers will not be given to working people either by the AKP or the CHP, but must be struggled for on the streets. They call for a spoiled vote in the referendum. Unlike a boycott, spoiled votes count towards the number of no votes and therefore make it more difficult for Erdoğan to win. But on the other side, this tactic is not merely support of the CHP’s position. With this position, the task of building an independent force of the working class can be emphasised.

At the same time, there is the need to express that workers who really want to get rid of the old constitution and change society might end up on different sides of the referendum. Some follow the yes lobby, seeing the amendments as a small step to overcome the constitution of 1982 but feel that much more is needed. Others are influenced by the Kurdish parties. Others identify with the no campaign of parts of the trade unions as a way forward.

The way to build unity is to call for a struggle for workers’ rights and show how this can be achieved. The question of building a new mass force of the working class has to be emphasised in all arguments on the referendum – this can be the means to unite the workers and youth in struggle for their demands.

The CWI stands for:

  • No trust in the AKP, no hopes in the CHP: for independent struggle of the working class to fight for full democratic rights now.
  • Democratic rights in Turkish society as a whole, for example freedom of press, freedom to assemble, freedom to organise, freedom to strike without any interference from the forces of the state
  • For a democratically elected constitutional assembly to get rid of the 1982 constitution completely. For workers’ committees to organise the free election of representatives to this assembly.
  • For workers’ rights and an end to the suppression of all minorities, for the right of self-determination up to and including the right to form a seperate state, for example in Kurdistan. At the same time, the CWI stands for the closest possible collaboration and integration of the working class irrespective of national, religious or ethnic divisions – for united trade unions and united struggle. Only by calling for a socialist confederation can the common social problems of working people and poor be solved by workers, small farmers and the poor themselves, without causing new national or ethnic divisions and tensions.
  • Nationalise the big companies under workers’ control and management to develop a democratic, socialist plan of production.
  • Build a mass workers’ party with a revolutionary socialist programme to end the dictatorship of the markets.
  • For a workers’ and small farmers’ government based on mass movements of working people to overcome the power of the big companies and all forms of oppression.

Hopes are rising in Kurdistan

The recent ceasefire of the PKK, which began in the middle of August, and the signals from İmralı Island, where the PKK’s leader, Öcalan, is imprisoned, have increased the hopes for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish question.

This comes after a bloody first half of the year. Hundreds of soldiers of the Turkish army and fighters of the PKK were killed. At the height of the campaign and the propaganda against the PKK, nationalistic mobs attacked Kurdish people and the offices of the BDP in western Turkey. In Dörtyol-Hatay, a BDP building was burned, and houses and shops belonging to Kurdish people were set on fire. In Erzurum, the mayor of Dagpinar-Kars was attacked. In Dersim (officially called Tunceli), a time bomb failed to explode and hit a BDP speaker only because of technical problems.

Now hopes are high that the ceasefire will usher in a period of negotiations. The BDP is open to changing its call for a boycott on the referendum to supporting a yes vote if five demands are met by the AKP: the preparation of a new constitution, that does not favour any ethnicity; the lowering of the 10% threshold for election to the national parliament; an end to military operations against the PKK; the launching of negotiations for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question and the release of suspects, detained in operations against the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), including many BDP mayors and local activists.

The AKP will not grant these demands now, but these are the long term aims of the BDP. Immediate, smaller concessions might be enough to change the BDP’s approach. The PKK’s cease-fire was seen as a helpful move for the government in the run-up to the referendum.

The BDP itself is under pressure. Kurdish business organisations have argued for a yes vote in the referendum and Öcalan is prepared to make deals. The mood in Kurdish society seems to be more mixed, as many people hope for a peaceful solution and do not want the CHP or the army and the judicial bureaucracy to be strengthened in relation to the AKP.

Erdoğan’s government at least made small steps towards more rights for Kurdish people, while the military continually tried to escalate the conflict for its own interests and the courts again and again banned the BDP’s predecessor parties. Ten years ago, the singer, Ahmet Kaya, popular in all parts of Turkey, was sharply attacked for merely announcing that he would like to include a song in Kurdish on his next album. In fear of violent attacks and prosecution by the state, he had to leave the country. Today, while there is still not real freedom for Kurdish speakers, the Kurdish language can be heard on TV and in radios. Even Erdoğan tried to win some support using a few scraps of Kurdish in his election campaign in 2009.

The AKP has won some support in the Kurdish areas in the past but they failed to bring in any real changes, despite their ‘democratic offensive’directed at the Kurdish areas in 2009. This, combined with the government’s confrontation with the Tekel workers, which included many Kurdish workers and workers from Kurdish areas, has led to a decline in support for Erdoğan in eastern parts of Turkey.

The CWI stands for:

  • An immediate end to the war against the Kurdish people. The withdrawal of all Turkish military units from Kurdish areas.
  • Full cultural and democratic rights for the Kurds. For democratically elected local councils and a regional parliament without the ban of any party except the fascists. Committees of workers, exploited sections of the rural population and the poor are needed to ensure that these elections are democratically organised.
  • End the discrimination against Kurdish political representation in Turkish institutions. A fully democratic electoral system. Democratic rights in Turkish society as a whole (for example freedom of press, freedom to assemble, freedom to organise, abolish the 10% treshold).
  • The right of self-determination for the Kurdish people including and up to the right to secede from the oppressive Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian states.
  • For a socialist confederation of the Middle East with full rights to all minorities up to and including the right to form an independent state which then should be part of the confederation, on a voluntary basis. This can lay the basis to develop the countries and end all national and ethnical oppression.
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