Turkey: AKP regime heading for stormy times

“If democracy is to be successfully fostered across the Muslim world, especially in Arab countries, it is vital to encourage this Turkish exemplar.” Fourteen years ago, these were the words of ‘The Economist’, referring to the rule of its Turkish darling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Today, the pro-big business magazine regularly bashes Erdoğan as a would-be Sultan leading his country to ruin. This sums up the Western ruling classes’ more indisposed attitude vis-à-vis the Turkish regime, once an advertisement for democratic opening and free market prosperity.

From a relatively pliable ruler in the past, Erdoğan has grown into a somewhat unpredictable political maverick who regularly steps on Western powers’ toes. A monumental state clampdown was unleashed in the aftermath of a failed military coup against his rule in the summer of 2016. The country’s economic growth, still substantial on paper, holds problems in store and conceals mounting working class dissatisfaction. Hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish national question have been shattered by the Turkish army’s renewed military onslaught, now expanded into the north west of current Syria. 

A strong economy?

Financed through an abundant inflow of foreign capital since 2001, Turkey’s economic boom has been the driving engine for AKP’s long innings in power. Riding this wave of growth, people’s disappointment with the old political and military institutions, and the Islamic beliefs of the most religious sections of Turkey’s population, gave the ruling party its important base of electoral support. 

Today, although the regime still possesses social reserves, Erdoğan’s approval ratings are on an unmistakably sinking trajectory, especially among working class and young voters. This was exemplified during last April’s referendum aimed at consolidating the President’s personal grip on power: the regime was compelled to rig the vote to get the majority needed, for the ‘Yes’ scored much below official expectations, particularly in the cities.

Mass casualisation of labour, frenetic privatisation and stark inequalities have undermined the myth of an all-inclusive growth. According to a new survey conducted in January by the Ipsos research company, 54% of workers in Turkey say they are “struggling to make ends meet”. Inflation has reached double-digits (12%), eating into people’s wages, and unemployment is rising, particularly among the youth. Up to 400 workers have reportedly died in the construction of a new mega airport in Istanbul: a macabre figure which shows that while the multibillion-dollar construction projects the government has presided over have been a profit bonanza for property developers close to the regime, they have been carried out in absolute disdain of working people’s lives. 

In the last quarter of 2017, Turkey registered an economic growth of 11%, greater than any of the world’s top 20 economies. After a major setback the year before, this economic rebound is used by the regime’s mouthpieces as confirmation of the AKP’s economic success story. But the recent growth has mostly been sustained by a massive injection of state-sponsored credit, as Erdoğan is gearing up for the presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2019 (which he might decide to call earlier, before the amassing problems start to unravel). A business consultant in Istanbul commented last year: “Voters are extremely uncomfortable with the purges and clampdowns. Erdoğan can only hold the system together by pumping in enough money to keep growth high, so he’s not going to hit the brakes.”

Mass repression 

The coup attempt against Erdoğan in July 2016 provided a springboard for these purges and clampdowns. At the time, the CWI and its section in Turkey, Sosyalist Alternatif, anticipated that the aborted coup would be followed by a sweeping “counter-coup” on the part of Erdoğan and his supporters. 

Since that time, a state of emergency has been in place all over the country, systematically suppressing all dissidence. State repression has been supplemented by pro-AKP armed militias, such as the People’s Special Forces (HÖH). Their vigilante activities were granted a legal blank cheque through governmental decree last December, to assist regular state forces in carrying out the dirty work against government opponents. 

The most left-wing opposition party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) has been partially debilitated. Nine of the party’s MP’s have been stripped of their parliamentary status, and many of its leaders, members and supporters sent to jail. In total, around 150,000 alleged or real government opponents have been sacked from their jobs and over 55,000 people arrested over the past 20 months. Scores of journalists are behind bars following a media purge. The government closed hundreds of magazines, newspapers and radio stations, leaving media outlets owned by pro-regime corporate moguls as the only show in town. 

A “fear factor” has crept in among large sections of society as a result of this hysterical crackdown. However, these repressive measures offer no guarantee for the regime’s long-term political stability. 

Last summer, in the midst of the state of emergency, around one million people rallied in Istanbul in a “March for Justice” against Erdoğan’s rule, responding to a call initially made by the Kemalist opposition party CHP (Republican People’s Party, representing the traditionally secularist wing of Turkey’s capitalist class). This response does not signify a mass support for the CHP. Rather it indicates that any breach in the situation can open the floodgates for the passive, but growing, resentment at the regime to take on a more active character. 

At present, many workers and young people are lying low. But this is not a generalised phenomenon, and might not be a lasting one either. The large-scale protests held on International Women’s Day, that heard slogans such as “We are not silent, we are not scared, we are not obeying” have given a vigorous response to the prevalent narrative of an all-powerful and unchallengeable government. Importantly, the workers’ movement too has recently confirmed that it will be a force to be reckoned with.    

Metal workers defy the government 

Last July, Erdoğan made clear to foreign investors that the state of emergency was a potential tool to silence workers: “We enacted the state of emergency so that our business community can work comfortably”. A practical test of this came in January when 130,000 metalworkers threatened to go on strike in around 180 workplaces across the country. The strike, scheduled to begin on 2 February 2018, was banned by the government on grounds of being “prejudicial to national security”. 

The unions decided to defy the government, and rightly so, by refusing to recognize the strike ban and pledging to continue the struggle regardless. The determined stance of the metalworkers forced the bosses’ organisation (MESS), who had initially put a meagre 3.2% wage increase on the table, to concede a 24.6% increase in wages and 23% on social benefits. This example shows how much a fighting stance from union leaders can make a substantial difference in unsettling a balance of forces seemingly in favour of the capitalist class. 

In the dark two years-long tunnel of unabated repression, such a flashpoint gains greater significance, pointing towards the potential for future workers’ outbursts. Quelling the growing social discontent certainly was a crucial motivation for the regime to put the country back into war mode, by whipping up Turkish chauvinism and turning the heat on the Kurds again.

New war against the Kurds 

Beyond the use of the brute force of the state, Erdoğan and his clique’s loss of political and economic steam in recent years has led them into using various means to bolster their support: blowing on the embers of nationalism and intolerance of minorities, pushing for the Islamisation of cultural and social practices, reinforcing women’s oppression, glorifying the heritage of the Ottoman empire, projecting regional power and stepping up the war of words against Western imperialism and Israel.  

A central part of this strategy has been a scorched-earth policy against the Kurdish minority, conducted from 2015, when the first electoral breakthrough of the pro-Kurdish HDP came about. At the time, the timid but real promotion of class and social issues by this party articulated the left-leaning politicisation of a new generation, and showed the potential for building a bridge between polarised communities. Burning this bridge became the regime’s obsession, along with crushing the Kurdish movement in neighbouring Syria – which built its own institutions there since 2013, and stands as an encouraging example for Turkey’s own Kurdish community and its desire to break the shackles of oppression.

All these considerations incited Erdoğan to launch “Operation Olive Branch”, the invasion of Afrin, one of the three predominantly Kurdish self-governed cantons in north-western Syria (or Rojava), on January 20. If successful, this military outing would also provide a territorial pad for leveraging Turkey’s weight on the Syrian power chessboard, and satisfy Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions of expanding his country’s geo-political influence in the Middle East.  

The Turkish army’s rampage in Afrin has already killed hundreds of people and forced tens of thousands to flee. On the ground, it is backed by Sunni fighters from the so-called Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra Front and other jihadist mercenaries; the regime is afraid that too many body bags of Turkish soldiers coming home would dent the majority support for the war currently prevailing among ethnic Turks. 

Considering the Turkish public’s entrenched opposition to Western imperialism, the close cooperation between the leaders of the Rojava administration and the US government, initially forged in their common battle against ISIS, has unfortunately given some credence to the anti-imperialist façade that Erdoğan has been lately trying to dress up his regime with. The previous over-reliance on US airstrikes has also left many Kurdish militants and Rojava supporters unprepared for a situation where US air power is glaringly absent and the fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units, the militias defending Rojava) have their sole force to count on. The White House, like European governments, have rhetorically protested the offensive on Afrin but not lifted a finger to prevent it. They can ill afford to jeopardise entirely their relations with Turkey – which would push this weighty NATO power into the hands of Putin’s Russia. 

These factors, in the face of the Turkish army’s massive air power, partially explains why Afrin’s city centre appears to have been taken by Turkish-backed forces with relative ease, on Sunday 18 March.

In the Kurdish south-eastern areas of Turkey, no sizeable street reaction has broken out so far against that invasion, in contrast with the mass protests and riots that took place at the time of ISIS’ attack on Kobane in 2014. This bears testimony to the overbearing state terror as much as to the mood of despair that predominates among the Kurdish population in those areas, still digesting the harrowing consequences of a previous, brutal war conducted there by the regime’s army in 2015-2016. 

The international labour movement needs to oppose the Turkish regime’s onslaught and occupation in Afrin, and to uphold the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination. Critically, the regime’s war-mongering policies entail enormous costs for the workers and poor living in Turkey, beyond the fact that such military adventures are financially loaded on the shoulders of the Turkish taxpayers. 

Border towns in Turkey have been the target of retaliatory rockets from the YPG resulting in the death of civilians. “Operation Olive Branch” also pours salt on the open wound of the country’s ethnic divisions, and gives a pretext for more anti-democratic measures that will help the ruling power and the bosses to muzzle the working class even more. In January, 11 members of the Turkish Medical Association’s central council, labelled “terrorist-lovers”, were detained because of a statement opposing the war entitled “War is a Matter of Public Health”. A total of over 600 arrest warrants have been issued for people opposing the Afrin invasion on social media. In effect, the external war is used to beef up the internal war against all the “enemies within”.  

The “Good Party”, and the need for a working class alternative 

Erdoğan’s impulsive foreign policy decisions and his increasingly megalomaniac way of rule have created unease among sections of the capitalist class, both in Turkey and internationally. Of course, they never had any problems with the AKP’s commitment to neo-liberalism, nor with the blood-spattered Turkish state machine, at least as long as it was efficient in keeping the masses in check and conducive to make profits. But some now fear that the President-dictator’s course of action might lead the country to the brink of social implosion or civil war. 

Besides, the government’s purges have not only affected left, trade union and Kurdish activists. They have also been turned against part of the country’s economic elite as a way to consolidate the position of a handful of businesses close to the regime’s inner circle. Hundreds of companies and billions in assets were confiscated to be delivered to pro-Erdoğan oligarchs.  

The lack of a viable pro-corporate alternative has made Erdoğan a ‘necessary evil’ that Western big business and parts of the Turkish capitalist elite have had to accommodate. It is such an alternative that the newly created IYI (“Good Party”) is striving to put in place. IYI was founded by Meral Aksener, an ex-Interior Minister and split-off politician from the ultra-nationalist MHP (the latter having attached its fate to the AKP bandwagon for fear of failing to make the 10% electoral threshold needed to get parliamentary representation in the next elections). 

The Good Party tries to position itself as a fresh horse for the ruling class to bet on, in preparation for a post-Erdoğan political set-up. It promises to restore damaged relations with the West whilst trying to capture the votes of workers, young people and women disenchanted with the AKP’s rule.  

As the elites are preparing for the future, so should workers and young people. In spite of their occasionally pro-poor rhetoric, the CHP and the Good Party do not represent the interests of the working class and oppressed layers. Opposing certain aspects of the AKP’s policies, these parties agree with its pro-capitalist nature and both approve the murderous Afrin operation. 

For now, the Left has to swim against a tide of nationalism and repression. Yet the intensifying exasperation at the deteriorating economic, political and social situation will not stay dormant forever, preparing stormy times for the AKP regime. The forms that future events will take in Turkey will depend on the capacity of the Left to rebuild itself into a credible pole of attraction for the layers who will want to move into action against the current system. 

The defence of democratic and union rights, the release of political prisoners and reversal of unfair sackings, the struggle against the war and state terror on the Kurds and other minorities, are important battlegrounds around which a united front of resistance against Erdoğan’s dictatorship, involving Turkish and Kurdish Left organisations, militant trade unions, social movement activists and HDP supporters, can be laid out. This can create the conditions for the re-building of a mass left force championing a united workers’ movement, which can challenge not only the existing regime, but the rule of capital in Turkey and the region. While campaigning for such a dynamic, Sosyalist Alternatif will advocate a bold and inclusive socialist programme to take it forward; one aiming for the public ownership and democratic planning of Turkey and the region’s resources, and for the Kurdish people to determine freely their own future.

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March 2018