Turkey / Kurdistan: Erdoğan escalates attacks on PKK

Attempts to form a new left umbrella party

In an offensive during the last seven days, the Turkish army claims that around 100 fighters of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), the Kurdish guerrilla group in Turkey, were killed and another 80 were wounded. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, used an attack on a military convoy by the PKK in the south-east of Turkey on 17 August, in which eight soldiers and one member of the pro-government Kurdish militia died, to launch a huge military campaign. It included air strikes on bases of the PKK in Northern Iraq and coordinated action with the Iranian regime, as a reported phone call with President Ahmadinejad indicates. The Iranian regime itself started an offensive on 16 July against Kurdish fighters. This was reported by the Kurdistan National Congress, who warned Turkey not to resort to a ‘Tamil solution’ of the Kurdish question – a further slaughter of Kurdish people. There is speculation in the Turkish media that, after Ramadan ends on 30 August, the government could start a ground offensive in the region.

Erdoğan combined these military actions with a threat: that those not distancing themselves from terror would have to “pay a price”. This was more or less openly directed at the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), a Kurdish, left-leaning party.

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) government presented itself in the past as searching for a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish question, even implementing some reforms, for example allowing the use of the Kurdish language. Now, thousands of Kurdish politicians are imprisoned by this government and the repression on Kurdish activists, but also the left and trade unionists, is increasing.

Erdoğan is trying to use his strengthened position following his victory in the general election in June 2011, which saw a slight increase in the AKP’s vote from 47 to 50%. He was afterwards able to further push aside the opposition from the ’Kemalist’ – traditional secularist – leadership of the military. The open power struggle between different wings of the bureaucracy of the state apparatus which kept Turkey in its grip over a decade has now reached a qualitative change in favour of the AKP: The old Kemalist bureaucracy in the state apparatus – for example in the military and the courts – who tried to stand against the AKP, have severely lost their influence and power.

Therefore, this is the first military campaign where Erdoğan cannot hide behind a warmongering military elite with its own interests in escalation – which was partially true in the past. In the eyes of many Kurdish people, Erdoğan will be fully responsible now.

Refugee camp in border zone in northeastern Iraq, where Kurds have fled offensives in Turkey and Iran

Elections in June and the prospects of the bloc for work, democracy and freedom

The elections of June saw also an increase from 20 to 36 elected MPs supported by the BDP and an alliance of mostly left parties around it. To surmount the obstacle of the 10% national threshold for parties to get MPs, these candidates stood as independents. In total this ‘bloc for work, democracy and freedom’ got 6.6% nationally, despite the fact that they could not stand in all constituencies. Their votes increased in the Kurdish areas compared to 2007. The bloc allowed representatives of left parties to stand, for example, in Istanbul and other big cities, where the election results were also better than the average. The MPs elected included Sırrı Süreyya Önder, a well known film director, active in the resistance against the military dictatorship in the 1980s, Levent Tüzel, member and ex-chair of EMEP (Labour Party), and Ertuğrul Kürkçü, one of the leading members of the left resistance of the THKP-C (Turkish People’s Liberation Front) in the 1970s which still has a very high profile in Turkey today.

However, some of the elected representatives were not allowed to become members of the parliament. Hatip Dicle, elected with 78.000 votes in Diyarbakir, but imprisoned for his pro-Kurdish activism, was refused to take his seat. Instead, it was given to the AKP’s candidate in his constituency who clearly came second. Alongside Hatip, four other elected representatives were banned. In protest, the other MPs of the bloc for work, democracy and freedom refused to take their oath in parliament.

Empty seats of the MPs supported by the bloc during a swearing-in ceremony at the parliament, June 2011

After the election success of the bloc, Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, emphasised again his repeatedly made proposal to transform the election alliance into a new umbrella party of the BDP, socialists, ecological activists and feminists. The election result encouraged activists to move in this direction. It got a lot of attention on the left and in the workers’ movement. The Turkish media did not report much about it, but the discussions are continuing involving EMEP (a legal party built from former Stalinists who supported Albania and still see themselves as socialists, mainly presenting a reformist programme; internationally linked to Day-Mer in Britain, or DiDF – federation of Turkish workers in Germany) and SDP (Socialist Democracy Party – also comprising former left activists, a split from the ÖDP – Freedom and Solidarity Party) as well as the BDP. Unfortunately, it is not a process from below involving new activists but more a top-down approach of the different leaderships of these groups.

Before and during the elections, Öcalan had proposed to the government to transform the PKK into a political movement and end the armed struggle. The PKK has been in an impasse now for many years. It is obvious that the armed struggle will lead nowhere. Öcalan and the PKK are not demanding an independent Kurdistan anymore, but ‘democratic autonomy’ within the Turkish state.

But the government – while starting some negotiations with their prisoner and state enemy number one, Öcalan – did not offer anything. In danger of being pushed more and more aside, the PKK gave their answer in August and re-started attacks after ending their one-sided ceasefire. The PKK created with these attacks an opportunity for Erdogan to strike back with bloody bombing. There are now even discussions in the government about using special elite forces on the ground to intensify the battle against the PKK. A harsher prison regime against Öcalan has been imposed. As the Kurdistan National Congress reports, his lawyers have been banned from seeing him “for arbitrary reasons” since 27 July.

A new increased wave of arrests against the BDP and Kurdish intellectuals is foreseeable. The whole rhetoric of the government and capitalist media points in this direction. A newspaper close to Erdoğan called the BDP “murderers”.

So far, tensions on the ground between Turkish and Kurdish people are not as heated as after other PKK attacks in recent years, when Turkish nationalists stirred up groups to attack Kurdish shops and centres. But the government and the media have re-inflamed the tensions and slanders against the BDP to accompany the military campaign.

Prospects for a new left party

The Turkish workers’ movement has been in a process of re-awakening in recent years, with hundreds of thousands gathering every May Day in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the Tekel workers’ struggle last year and other smaller industrial battles. Given this background and the social instability in Turkey, a new formation developing out of the bloc has a lot of potential in offering a platform to a layer of new socialist, workplace and trade union activists.

At the same time, because of its mainly Kurdish nationalist outlook despite its left positioning, the BDP (and its forbidden predecessors) have limited appeal for Turkish workers. The BDP never managed to become a real Turkey-wide party.

Rally of the bloc in the election campaign

To cut across the demagogy of the nationalists, from the neo-fascist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) to the Kemalist CHP (Republican People’s Party) and the governing AKP (the other three parties in the parliament), a new left party has to base itself on the joint struggle of the working class against all oppression and for full democratic rights, including trade union rights, the right to strike and the rights of Kurdish people to decide their autonomy or even independence, if they wish.

On a capitalist basis there is no way out for the development of the economy in the Kurdish areas, nor is there a prospect for a stable continuation of the boom in the Turkish economy. In contrast, it has a lot of features in common with the Southern European states before the last crisis hit them (see box on Turkish economy). The precarious, low-paid jobs are increasing and the boom of recent years has not reached wider parts of the working class. The credit-card bubble helped working-class people to sustain their living standards. This will strike back to hit them hard.

A newly-formed left formation could develop roots also in the Turkish working class. Unfortunately, the forces allied to the bloc for work, democracy and freedom limit themselves to small reformist demands and do not link the struggle for immediate improvements to the fight for a socialist solution to poverty and unemployment in Turkey and Kurdistan. This will put the development of this new party under question.

However, a platform to bring workers, young people and activists of social movements together, to discuss and develop a programme and a joint fightback against the AKP government and the attacks of the capitalists and imperialism, is urgently needed. A new umbrella party could be a step forward in this direction.

Marxist forces are needed to ensure that those activists from workplaces, trade unions and social movements as well as Kurdish activists, who are looking in the direction of this new emerging umbrella party, will find more than the leaderships of the parties involved are prepared to offer. A revolutionary socialist alternative is necessary to build a new mass workers’ party, armed with a programme to overcome the AKP government, the oppression of Kurdish people, capitalism and imperialism.

Threat of economic decline

All this has happened in a still favourable economic situation for the capitalists.

In the first quarter of 2011, Turkey saw economic growth of 11% – more than even China. But in August, the US bank Morgan Stanley lowered their expectations for 2012 from 4.5% to 3.5% growth. The growth is based on a huge current account deficit which the IMF expects to be around 10.5% this year.

‘Hot money’ is pouring into Turkey as it is seen as a profitable place to invest. But this can not only stop but completely change its direction and lead to an outflow of capital.

The Turkish Lira has lost 23% of its value in relation to the Euro since the beginning of the year; the index of the Istanbul stock exchange has lost 21% of its value so far in 2011.

This indicates developments similar to the pre-crisis situation in Southern Europe.

Regional developments are a further destabilising factor. Economic relations with Syria in the last period rose from €700 million to €3 billion. But since the Syrian regime launched its civil war against the protest movement and the number of people crossing the border to escape repression increased significantly, trade and investment have been seriously hit.

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August 2011