Having ruled Turkey for almost two decades, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is at its most vulnerable. With Turkey staggering on from one crisis to another since 2018, in a highly polarised political environment, a new explosive era is opening up with massive opportunities for the worker’s movement.
Rising living costs, low pay, high unemployment and a multitude of other problems are facing working-class people in Turkey. To benefit from Erdogan’s growing unpopularity, all opposition parties on the left and the right of the political spectrum are gearing up for the presidential elections, due to be held in 2023, to defeat Erdogan at the ballot box.
The continuing economic crisis has smashed the confidence of capitalists in Erdogan’s government, and cracks are opening up at the top, as well. This year alone, Turkey’s currency has lost about 45 per cent of its value against the US dollar, a new record low. Within the space of one month only, the Lira has depreciated from 9.97 to 15 against the US dollar.
In response to the sharp plunge in the Turkish Lira and the crisis in the economy, President Erdogan has said Turkey is fighting an “economic war of independence”.
Despite soaring inflation rates and opposition from bourgeois economists, Erdogan is hell-bent on his unorthodox position that high interest rates lead to higher inflation. Under the orders of Erdogan, the central bank has cut interest rates from 19% to 15%, and a further cut is expected.
Meanwhile, inflation continues to rise. According to official statistics, annual inflation in Turkey in November stood at 21.3 per cent. The food prices have gone up by about 27 per cent.
But any person living in Turkey will know that these figures are a complete lie. The prices are going up to such an extent that some supermarkets are not even bothering to use price tags anymore. Many shoppers know that the prices will go up substantially next time they go shopping. The salaries of millions of workers, as a result of skyrocketing inflation, have been eroding.
Many independent economists and academics predict the actual annual inflation rate in Turkey to be more than 40 per cent. However, the bosses and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are using the official inflation rates to offer workers below-inflation pay rises, which is a pay cut in real terms.
According to a report produced by the left-wing Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK), around 10 million workers are being paid the national minimum wage, and there are millions of workers who earn even less than that. Many employers treat the minimum wage as a maximum wage.
The Sunday December 12 protest organised by DISK in Istanbul, which was attended by tens of thousands of workers, to demand an increase in the monthly minimum wage to 5200 Turkish Lira, is an indication of the fighting mood amongst the organised working class. A few months ago, a factory was occupied for several days by car workers in response to the victimisation of trade unionists.
The leaders of the trade union movement need to step up and coordinate strike action to bring the bosses to their knees and to build a mass movement to defeat Erdogan’s anti-working class government. Turkey’s working class, one of the strongest in the region, has a militant tradition of strikes, occupations and mass demonstrations to defeat anti-union legislations.
Crisis of Turkish capitalism
A Financial Times (London) editorial published last month is an indication of the fears of the mouthpieces of capitalism. The Editorial commented, “the currency’s troubles almost entirely reflect the increasingly erratic decision-making of one man and the influence he wields over the supposedly independent Turkish central bank: president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
The editorial ends with the following statement: “Unless he [Erdogan] suddenly changes course, the only question facing Turkey, a country with great potential, is how much longer the president will stay — and how much damage he can do before he goes.”
To be clear, Erdogan has been supported by the EU and capitalist commentators ever since he came to power in 2003, as they saw him as someone who can reliably represent the interest of the capitalist class. As far as the capitalist class is concerned, he did a good job. While there was impressive economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. There were some sections of the capitalist class, in particular construction companies, that have thrived during the Erdogan era. Many state-owned industries were privatised and sold cheaply to Erdogan’s cronies. According to DISK, 88 per cent of all privatisations in the history of Turkey took place during the last two decades. Anti-union legislation was passed in the parliament to curb the power of trade unions.
However, a slump in the Turkish economy was almost inevitable given the weaknesses of Turkish capitalism. Erdogan had to become even more authoritarian to cling onto power as the economic growth slowed down and society became increasingly polarised, especially after the mass Gezi Park protests in 2013.
The recent crisis stems partly because of the ‘erratic decision-making of one man’, but it is also because of the profound crisis in the global economy. The global economy has been in a continuous crisis since the financial crash of 2007-8. Today, many advanced capitalist countries are facing the prospect of stagflation.
The crisis in Turkey – political, economic and social – creates an explosive situation. The plunge in the Lira has caused a serious depletion in foreign exchange reserves in Turkey. Over the period of three years, foreign exchange deposits held in Turkish banks have increased from 49 per cent to 55 per cent.
Undoubtedly, there will be sections of the capitalist class who will benefit from cheap Lira. Erdogan is also considering a new economic model similar to the Chinese economy, hoping that a cheap labour force will attract foreign investment.
International capitalist commentators are not the only ones expressing their concerns. The Turkish Industry Association, Turkey’s top business organisation, is also wringing its hands. Understanding that there is a potential for a mass social upheaval, the vast majority of the capitalist class will prefer another reliable pro-capitalist politician in order to fix the problems of the economy, even if it’s a temporary fix.
The Nation Alliance, which involves the main opposition party Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the right-wing ‘Good’ Party, is quite optimistic that they will win the next election. The fact that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has been leading the CHP for more than 10 years now, went to the HQ of the Turkish Statistical Institute to challenge their inflation figures shows that they are gaining confidence.
The Nation Alliance, however, will do all they can to try to defeat Erdogan through parliamentary manoeuvres rather than building a mass movement to defeat Erdogan. This is because not only do they fear being sidelined by a mass movement, but they understand that any movement against Erdogan could open the floodgates for the working class.
It cannot be ruled out that the CHP, a self-claimed social-democratic party, could come to power with support from other opposition parties, mainly from the right, who are united in order to get rid of Erdogan. But such a coalition is not sustainable in the long term.
If the CHP gets thrust into power, moreover, they will obediently serve the interests of the capitalist class by implementing a programme of austerity, to make the working class pay for the capitalist crisis. A CHP-led government, coming to power after toppling Erdogan, can also potentially boost the confidence of the working class and the youth.
There can be no trust in big businesses and their political representatives to defend the interests of the working class. There is an urgent need to build independent organisations of the working class with a fighting socialist leadership.
The left in Turkey is grappling with the question of what kind of alliance is needed to defeat Erdogan. This is a welcome step. Workers should not be forced to choose between two different wings of the capitalist class. This should be seen as a first step in building a new mass workers’ party, which could play the role of a workers’ parliament.
Rather than discussing the issues behind closed doors, the left should call local meetings, as well as a national conference to discuss the strategy and policies of such an alliance. This can have an electrifying effect on the labour movement.
Unfortunately, the debate focuses on which groups to exclude or include rather than trying to bring together different workers’ organisations in a federal structure.
The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), for example, has taken a sectarian stance and considers the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as a pro-capitalist organisation. The TKP says the HDP doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the alliance.
Despite the limitations of its reformist leadership, the HDP does have a working-class base, as many Kurdish workers see the HDP as their party. Rather than winning over working-class members of the HDP, the approach of the TKP will likely further alienate them. If, however, the TKP worked together with the HDP and exposed the mistakes of their leadership, in a transitional way, they could win over the politically advanced workers in the HDP.
For example, they can argue that there should be no illusions in capitalist democracy and that we need to build a united working-class movement, armed with a socialist programme, to bring an end to repression, poverty and exploitation.
What is also not discussed in this debate on the left is the role of trade unions, the mass defence organisations of the working class. The Workers’ Party of Turkey was formed in 1961 by 12 militant trade union leaders, as they drew the conclusion that workers needed political representation. At the moment, no left organisation is raising the need for trade unionists to stand in elections, or what role they will play in a left alliance. Their idea of a left alliance is simply presented as an amalgamation of different left groups, without any concrete political programme or strategy.
It is vital for Marxists to learn from past mistakes and put forward a strategy to win for the working class. This will involve fighting for every possible improvement, but it must be linked to why we need to fight for a socialist transformation of the society in Turkey and internationally.