Turkey: Erdoğan sworn in as country’s President

Significant poll gains for the left coalition HDP

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s outgoing Prime Minister and leader of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) was yesterday sworn into office as the country’s first directly elected president after getting 51% of the votes in August 10’s the presidential elections.

The AKP’s candidate managed to get such a high percentage of votes despite last year’s Gezi Park protests, big corruption scandals hitting Erdogan’s close circle, the Soma mining disaster in May, as well as the increasing instability at home provoked by the government’s policies in the broader region.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that while the growth rate of the Turkish economy has been slowing down over the last two years, most working class people have not yet felt a serious downturn in living standards. The second reason is that there is not yet a clear mass political alternative to AKP rule. The attitude of the opposition pro-capitalist parties in parliament is only to lean on anti-AKP rhetoric, while not raising any fundamentally different policies.

To this must be added the increasing authoritarian and repressive character of Erdogan’s regime and the tight control of the media which have become mere mouthpieces of the ruling party. Huge financial resources were provided by the AKP for the presidential election campaign. Also, Erdogan manipulated the Palestinian issue during the recent conflict in Gaza. Lastly, the 74% turnout in August’s vote was sharply down from the 89% recorded in the local elections last March.

At the same time, the Left in Turkey is generally small and fragmented. In that context, the electoral rise of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party – a Left umbrella party mainly coming out of the Kurdish movement, but also including the participation of other Left groups), with its presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş, winning 9.8% of votes, represents one of the most important feature of this election. This represents a positive breakthrough for Left ideas in the polls and partially reflects the political radicalization that has taken place via the unprecedented social and workers’ movements last year.

Whither the AKP?

Erdoğan’s major plan, after the presidential elections, is to centralize power and reinforce his personal rule. He mainly aims to do this by changing the political system of Turkey from a parliamentary system to a US-like presidential system, strengthening the executive power attributed to the president and making the prime minister’s role less important. But this plan can only work if the AKP takes a very high percentage of votes in the 2015 general elections, in order to change the constitution accordingly.

This is not the only problem. Erdoğan has vacated the prime ministerial position and his AKP membership because presidential rules require the president’s supposed ‘neutrality’ once in office. Erdoğan has strongly urged for a low-profile Prime Minister to replace him and for a cabinet deeply loyal to him. Erdoğan selected the same person as his successor for both prime minister and AKP leader – Ahmet Davutoğlu, the ex-Foreign minister in Erdogan’s last cabinet.

Davutoğlu is a comparatively new member of the AKP and is also loyal to Erdoğan. The latter has been trying to consolidate his power in the government and in the party by suppressing all high-profile founding members of the AKP. Erdoğan dreads internal power struggles within the party that could challenge his authority.

Davutoğlu has been ‘assigned’ after a formality party congress. As the main architect of Turkey’s regional foreign policy, he is responsible for a series of disastrous decisions in the Middle East.

As one commentator put it, Davutoğlu’s mantra of “zero problems with neighbours” has been transformed into “no neighbours without problems”. The AKP government’s Middle East policies are not very popular among AKP voters, because these policies contain many contradictions and created many problems for the Turkish government.

This is highlighted by the AKP’s support for jihadist fighters crossing from Turkey into Syria. They were used as Turkey’s informal proxies to undermine Assad’s regime, as well as to counteract Kurdish ambitions in northern Syria. But the jihadists are now increasingly threatening to foment instability and conflict within Turkey’s own borders. This is forcing the Turkish government to lean on Kurdish forces to counter the danger from the Islamist State (IS), which now controls vast parts of territory in Iraq and Syria.

For all these reasons, it is hard to expect that the new Davutoğlu government will be stable and will do well in the 2015 general elections.

Crisis of the opposition

Since the 2014 March local elections, the pro-capitalist opposition parties in the Turkish parliament formed a coalition against the AKP. The CHP, the old party of the Turkish State, which embeds Kemalism with social-democratic sounding rhetoric, and the MHP, an extreme right wing party that has fascist elements, supported the same candidate in the presidential elections, Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu.

He won 38% of the votes, but this is 5% less than the combined votes of the CHP and MHP in the local elections in March. The CHP and MHP decided to present an Islamist candidate as an attempt to steal votes from the most conservative layers of the AKP electorat. But that did not work. The AKP voters did not vote for him and many of the Kemalists and the more secular CHP voters, who are strongly concerned about religious freedom and women rights, did not vote for him either, preferring to vote for the HDP candidate, Demirtaş.

This situation is causing growing internal tensions inside the CHP. Kemalists and more ‘social-democratic’ representatives within the party blame the CHP leadership for the electoral defeat. Under pressure, the CHP leadership called an extraordinary party congress in early September, for which the Kemalist wing presented a new candidate for the CHP leadership.

HDP breakthrough

The third candidate in the presidential election was from the HDP’s, Selahattin Demirtaş, who is also the co-leader of that party. He is the only real winner of the presidential election in the sense of increasing his vote. While the HDP won 6.5% in March’s local election, in the presidential election Demirtaş achieved 9.8% – close to four million votes, with the party almost doubling its votes. While the HDP mainly springs from Kurdish nationalism it has also increasingly managed to appeal to a layer of Turkish workers and youth, and succeeded in an important breakthrough among Turkish voters in western Turkey.

HDP was established only a few months ago. It is a party of coalition between left parties from Stalinist, reformist and Trotskyist backgrounds, as well as environmental and pro-LGBT groups, and the Kurdish party, the BDP. The BDP is the biggest party in the HDP and dominates it, far more powerful than any other group or party within the coalition.

The BDP, based on the history of the Kurdish political movement, used to take a minimum of 50% of the Kurdish votes in the elections (the Kurdish population represents between 15%-20% of the population of Turkey). In the presidential elections, Demirtaş, as well as winning support in Kurdish areas, also won many votes from the Turkish population, which was previously unforeseeable.

This result was mainly because of political demands raised by Demirtaş’s campaign. He talked about collective rights of workers, LGBT and women’s rights, the need to ‘democratise’ Turkish institutions and his open political opposition to the AKP government, despite the ‘peace process’ taking place between the Kurdish militia, the PKK, and the AKP government.

The presidential election results have shown that a left political programme can win votes from both the Kurdish and Turkish working class. The HDP now has the potential to re-build a Left pole of attraction in Turkish politics, starting with its working class voters.

However there are many drawbacks with the HDP that need to be addressed. Firstly, although it presented some welcome pro-worker policies during the presidential elections, the HDP does not have a clear socialist programme, at the moment.

The HDP also has structural deficiencies. A genuine, democratic coalition of parties and groups and individuals, with a socialist programme, would be an important step forward. But the HDP ‘coalition’ is very restricted and limited at this stage. Actual HDP party membership is less than one thousand. Most of the decisions inside the party are made behind the scenes by high-rank cadres from different parties. There is not a climate of dynamic and democratic internal discussions, with a conscious view of spreading the debates to all members of the party and building a supportive and active membership. In that sense, it is hard to attract new ‘independent’ members (those who are not members of the parties inside the HDP) to get involved in the party.

Despite these weaknesses, the HDP is the most encouraging Left initiative that has developed in Turkey in recent years. How this force develops and the general attitude of the working class towards it, are crucial questions for the development of a real political alternative for workers and youth. Notwithstanding our criticisms of the HDP’s political and organisations deficiencies, Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI supporters in Turkey) supported Demirtaş as the only candidate attacking capitalism and putting forward pro-worker polices in the election. Demirtaş’s campaign offered the best electoral channel to address working class issues on a wide scale, and to pursue the discussion on the need to develop a new mass workers’ party in Turkey.

With bold socialist policies, such a workers’ party could quickly draw large working class support and be in a position to struggle for power. This would include calling for a living wage, decent housing, proper health care and education; opposing the neo-liberal plan of economic and political integration with the EU, breaking military ties with the NATO and closing NATO bases in the country; standing for full democratic rights, including for all minorities and for the oppressed Kurds; and demanding the nationalization of the main industries under public democratic ownership and control, for the benefit of the mass of people.

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August 2014