There is an ongoing political, economic and social crisis in Turkey. The pandemic has acted as a great accelerator, speeding up the processes that already existed. It has certainly made the situation far more difficult for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime to recover from the effects of the 2018 crisis caused by the sharp decline in the value of the Turkish currency. The regime faces great challenges, both domestically and internationally.
Despite the profound crisis facing the Turkish economy, Erdoğan continues to portray himself as a strong anti-establishment figure fighting against Turkey’s enemies. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Having ruled Turkey for two decades, Erdogan’s regime is now in a very weak and volatile state. The popularity that Erdogan has enjoyed for many years is dwindling at a rapid pace.
This is mainly because working-class people in Turkey are facing a cost-of-living crisis. Although the official statistics claim that annual inflation is just over 78 per cent, many economists and academics argue that inflation is well over 100 per cent. Of course, for many working-class people inflation levels feel much higher than even that.
But while millions of people are plunging into deeper poverty, the rich in Turkish society continue to get richer. In 2020 alone, 21,000 more people became dollar millionaires, bringing the total number in Turkey to 115,000.
But the crisis in the Turkish economy and Erdogan’s erratic rule makes him an unreliable representative of the capitalist class, not just domestically but also internationally. There is growing opposition to his regime.
In a desperate attempt to win concessions from Western countries, in particular from the US, Erdoğan has used Turkey’s leverage in NATO to block Sweden and Finland’s accession into NATO unless they crack down on members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
After a long period of diplomatic talks, it seems like Erdoğan managed to win concessions from NATO as Finland and Sweden agreed to crackdown on the PKK and lift military embargoes on Turkey. Nevertheless, Erdoğan still threatens Sweden and Finland that unless they extradite members of the PKK then they will tell the Turkish parliament not to ratify the deal.
As far as the interests of capitalism are concerned, the erratic and unpredictable behaviour of Erdogan makes him an unreliable representative of the capitalist class. In 2017, as a long-standing NATO member, Turkey brokered a deal with Russia to acquire the S-400 missile system despite US objections.
Turkey’s objection to Finland and Sweden’s membership of NATO, the escalation of the tensions between Turkey and Greece in the Mediterranean Sea, the imprisonment of Pastor Brunson for alleged terrorist connections, and the military operations against the Kurds in Rojava are only a few examples of the deteriorating relationship between Turkey and western countries in the recent period.
At the same time, Turkey has strengthened its relationship with Russia. Erdoğan is trying to make the most out of the volatile international situation by zigzagging between Western countries and Russia.
So while Turkey is giving military support to Ukraine and denying Russian military ships access to the Bosporus strait, it still refuses to impose sanctions on Russia and they maintain a good economic relationship.
Turkey is trying to give the impression that it has an independent foreign policy. But the truth is that Turkey is still heavily reliant on Western support. For example, over 40 per cent of Turkish exports go to the European Union (EU), which makes it by far Turkey’s biggest export partner. Similarly, Western countries depend on Turkey both as a trading and geopolitical partner in the Middle East. Therefore, they all have interests in not breaking ties at this stage.
By vacillating between Russia and Western powers, Turkey wants to reassert itself as a regional power and expand its sphere of influence. Over the last couple of years, there has been an expansion of Turkish businesses that operate in countries like Libya, Iraq and in the Gulf.
These recent diplomatic talks between NATO and Turkey have once again shown that Western forces and capitalist institutions are no friends of Kurdish workers and the poor. They will cynically use the plight of Kurdish people to further their own interests. Kurds were treated as pawns in the talks between Turkey and NATO. Many weapons that Turkey has been using against Kurdish militant groups have been bought from western capitalist countries.
As a NATO member, Turkey has launched several military operations aimed at the Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq and Rojava. There is concern that there could be another military operation in Rojava as Turkey aims to create a long strip across the Turkish-Syrian border. Erdoğan says that he will deport the refugees in Turkey to this area.
As his regime becomes increasingly more unstable, Erdoğan is attempting to whip up nationalism at home by acting ‘tough’ against western countries and attacking Kurds. Nonetheless, the most important issue for many working and middle-class people in Turkey is the cost of living squeeze.
Linked to this, the refugee crisis has had a destabilising effect in Turkey and in the region. Turkey hosts the world’s largest refugee population with over 4 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
It is ordinary working-class people and the poor that pay the price for the failings of this system. The ruling classes are pitting groups of workers against each other. It is vital to build a united working-class movement for jobs and homes for all to cut across sectarian divisions in the region.
Throughout his presidency, Erdoğan has joked many times that there is no worthy opposition to his rule. He is at least right on one issue!
The main opposition to Erdoğan’s regime is led by the self-proclaimed social democratic Republican and People’s Party (CHP). They are part of the Nation Alliance, which includes five other right-wing parties. This includes the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former finance minister Ali Babacan. Both of these people are complicit in the attacks on the working class and oppressed minorities during the Erdoğan era.
The only issue that unites these six different parties is their opposition to Erdoğan and nothing else. Apart from agreeing to implement a general pro-big business programme, there is no discussion on what kind of programme they need to put forward to win support.
They almost entirely rely on the lesser evilism mood that exists in society, as there are significant layers who desperately want Erdoğan gone. But the reality is that this pro-capitalist opposition has no programme or policies that have an echo amongst vast sections of the working class. There can be no trust in this alliance. They will ultimately serve the interests of the bosses.
Despite the fact that Erdoğan does not reliably represent the interests of the capitalist class, it would be too simplistic to argue that the bosses would rather want the Nation Alliance to win.
Erdoğan’s regime has presided over vicious attacks on the livelihoods and democratic rights of working-class people. He has been successful in enriching the bosses while driving down wages. The crisis in Turkey is not necessarily caused by Erdoğan himself but it is an indication of capitalism’s failings in Turkey and internationally.
Furthermore, the fact that the Nation Alliance does not have a clear joint candidate to stand against Erdoğan in the presidential elections due to be held in 2023 shows the weaknesses and the deep divisions in this alliance.
Even if this alliance is thrust into power in the next elections as a result of Erdoğan’s growing unpopularity, the far sighted capitalists would know that this will be an unstable alliance incapable of creating a stable environment for the bosses. Given the crisis in the world economy, they would have limited room to manoeuvre.
What should the left do?
What is clear is that there is a highly polarised, unstable political situation in Turkey. Not only is there a crisis in capitalist political representation, but the leaders of the trade union movement have failed to provide vital leadership to defend the interests of the working class in these crucial times.
One of the main issues in Turkish politics is the refugee crisis. In the absence of a mass workers party, anti-immigration sentiments are growing amongst the population as people look to blame someone for the lack of jobs, homes and resources. Mainstream capitalist parties, including the far right, are trying to take advantage of this situation to criticise Erdoğan.
This creates a highly dangerous situation where tensions between different communities could escalate.
It is important to hammer home the point that migrants are not responsible for the crisis in Turkey. Many wouldn’t want to even stay in Turkey if it wasn’t for the deal between the EU and Turkey. The truth is that the vast majority of migrants are being exploited by bosses from all ethnic backgrounds (Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, etc.), as they work for much less than a Turkish worker would. Many of them are undocumented and live in overcrowded slum housing.
But some on the left fail to understand the frustration of many people in Turkey that have to endure a severe economic crisis. It is not helpful to portray Turkish workers simply as racists. The ruling class is attempting to divide and rule by pitting workers against each other, so it is vital for the trade union movement to step in to build a united working-class movement to fight Erdoğan and the bosses. This would prevent the far right from successfully spreading racist ideas.
Moreover, there is an urgent need for the trade union movement to put its stamp on the swirling events. They are at the forefront in the fight against the cost-of-living crisis.
Since the beginning of this year we have seen an upsurge in workers’ struggle, albeit still at historically low levels. Couriers, warehouse workers, factory workers all took spontaneous strike action demanding better pay and trade union rights. Often, workers have downed their tools and occupied factories. During this period there have been important victories where workers’ demands were met by the bosses.
For example, recently members of United Metal Workers Union (Birleşik Metal-İş) who work for Smart Solar occupied the factory they work in for 24 hours after one of the workers got sacked for union activity. The bosses were brought to their knees as they were forced to reinstate the sacked worker and begin talks with the union to reach a collective bargaining agreement.
In the period that we are in right now, there is a vital need to rebuild the organisations of the working class in defence of pay, jobs, and terms and conditions. This would include organising a fighting left within the trade unions and building a mass workers’ party that could enthuse a wide layer in society by putting forward a socialist programme.
The first step for the left trade unions could be to call a conference – a coalition of the willing – to discuss industrial and political strategy in the struggle against Erdoğan’s pro-capitalist regime. They should make an appeal to members of the state-owned trade unions, such as TÜRK-İŞ, to coordinate a fightback.
The unstable political situation poses the question of working-class political representation quite sharply. Ahead of the 2023 presidential elections, the left needs to take concrete steps to form a workers’ alliance and stand in elections against Erdoğan. Such an alliance must be politically independent from pro-capitalist forces, and it has the potential to offer a way forward for workers. And of course, a new mass workers’ party won’t be formed straight away. But putting forward a pro-working class socialist alternative at the ballot box would lay down a marker.
By working amongst the working class, a workers’ party could gain an echo as more and more workers begin to look for a political alternative. It could expose the limitations and the true face of the pro-capitalist Nation Alliance.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), with a significant base amongst Kurdish workers in Turkey, should be part of this alliance. Despite the limited programme offered by its leadership, the HDP is seen by many as a left-wing party. They have been facing massive repression from the Turkish state, as many of their activists and elected representatives are in jail. The last congress of the HDP, held a few days ago, brought together about 10,000 people, which is an indication that they have kept their base despite heavy repression.
The leaders of the HDP correctly argue that there should be a third alliance. But this should not be simply an alliance of ‘democratic forces’, as they propose, but it should be an alliance of workers’ organisations independent from pro-capitalists. The fight for democratic rights is part of the fight for socialism.
Moreover, the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) is seen by many people, in particular by young people, as a fighting force in the parliament with its 4 MPs. They are able to use their elected positions to raise the issues working-class and oppressed people face.
Similar to the pro-capitalist opposition, however, the left doesn’t put forward any programme. They need to go beyond simply explaining how bad things are and should start putting forward a concrete strategy and programme that could enthuse the masses in Turkey. As well as fighting for democratic rights, they could campaign for socialist nationalisation of the banks, energy companies and other key industries. Given soaring prices, one of the key demands should be inflation-proof pay rises for all workers.
At this stage, neither the HDP nor the TIP is putting forward such a bold programme. Rather than simply opposing Erdoğan’s rule, they should put forward a socialist alternative and build a united mass working-class movement to boot out Erdoğan and the capitalist system with it.
The strikes and mass movements taking place in other countries will have an effect on the consciousness of especially the advanced sections of the working class in Turkey. The fact that only 50,000 railway and tube workers in Britain could bring the whole country to a halt shows the potential power of the working class. Also, the mass protests in Sri Lanka against rising prices could boost the confidence of Turkish workers too.
The Erdoğan regime has never been in such a weak state before. It’s in a terminal crisis with limited room to manoeuvre. But that doesn’t mean he will go without any resistance. He will employ all the tools at his disposal to protect its power, wealth and privileges.
A mass working class-led action is vital to sweep aside not only Erdoğan and his clique but also the bosses and their capitalist system. Only socialism offers the working class a way forward.