After being in power unchallenged for two decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be facing his toughest polling test in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 14th May.
This is also the first election since the 2019 local elections. Losing the 2019 mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara, the two wealthiest cities in Turkey, was a massive blow to the prestige of Erdogan, as it shattered the idea that Erdogan is ‘undefeatable’.
Erdogan was further humiliated when he lost the rerun Istanbul mayoral election with a landslide to Ekrem Imamoglu, candidate of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), after successfully putting pressure on the electoral board to annul the initial elections when his party lost by 14,000 votes.
This defeat at the last local elections was, at its root, a result of the growing anger in the society in the face of skyrocketing inflation and a sharp fall in living standards following the economic crisis in 2018. Voters in these cities punished Erdogan’s right-wing conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the crisis in industrial cities.
But compared to 2019, the economic and political crisis in Turkey is far worse. While official inflation stood at around 20% in 2019, this time inflation stands at around 50%. Similarly, while one dollar got you around 5.5 Turkish Lira (TL) in 2019, now it is worth around 19 TL.
Of course, we are now in a different era even compared to 2019 because of the global pandemic, economic slowdown, higher inflation and interest rates in many countries and other multiple factors.
But what is clear is that the political, economic and social crisis has all been exacerbated since the last local elections. An unprecedented crisis is now facing the working class in Turkey and that is translating into mass frustration towards the Erdogan regime.
Almost all opinion polls indicate a drop in the popularity of Erdogan and the AKP. But nevertheless, Erdogan still enjoys significant support from the most downtrodden and middle-class layers in society.
The two powerful earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkey in early February, which affected 10 cities and about 13 million people, were an eye-opener for many. It has exposed the rottenness of Erdogan’s pro-capitalist regime and deepened the pre-existing crisis of Turkish capitalism.
This was the deadliest earthquake that ever struck Turkey with more than 50,000 people tragically losing their lives and many more injured. Millions of people were displaced from their homes.
Erdogan came to power in 2002 following a powerful earthquake that hit a city near Istanbul, killing over 18,000 people. By posing as an anti-establishment figure, he pledged to fight poverty and corruption.
Despite introducing new earthquake legislations, however, construction companies, contractors, property developers and their political representatives were able to get away with building weakly constructed buildings and repurposing existing buildings to open up ground-floor shops.
However, it was the absolute failure of the government to rescue and provide the basic necessities to earthquake survivors that fuelled the anger against the government. Rightly so, earthquake survivors in the area felt abandoned and neglected by the government as they were trying to save lives beneath the rubble often using their bare hands.
Even today, almost three months after the earthquake, dead bodies beneath the rubbles are being recovered. Severe shortages of water, and sometimes electricity, are now a common problem. Over two million people still live in tents!
Erdogan tried to use the earthquake as an opportunity for further attacks on democratic rights and introduced a state of emergency in the 10 affected cities for three months, ending just before the elections. This was to shut down any opposition against his regime and increase his powers in the area. He also gave powers to bosses in the area to impose unpaid leave for many workers.
The scar left by these devastating earthquakes will not be healed or forgotten quickly. Voters will likely punish Erdogan for the scandalous response to the earthquake.
The prospects for Erdogan’s regime
Erdogan’s regime has presided over a long period of economic growth and a construction boom, a period which saw an influx of investments in Turkey. Over 80% of all privatisations in Turkey’s history again took place in this period, with previously state-owned assets sold cheaply to cronies.
During this period, Erdogan was a reliable representative of the capitalist class. But following the economic downturn after the 2007/9 financial crisis, the Turkish economy struggled to return to its pre-crisis state despite shallow upturns. In turn, Erdogan resorted to more authoritarian measures to protect his social base as Turkish society began to become more polarised.
The deepening political, economic and social crisis in Turkey has severely damaged the reputation of Erdogan amongst the wide layers in the society. Even though official inflation is around 50%, inflation felt by ordinary working-class people is much higher. According to Inflation Research Group (ENAG), a research group made up of academics and economists, in February 2023 inflation was 126.91 per cent. While the richest in society continue to get richer, the rest of society is paying the toll of the economic crisis.
The earthquake has already deepened this crisis. Even though it seems like the economic impact of this recent earthquake will not be as hard-hitting as the 1999 earthquake, key industrial workplaces have been closed down. The World Bank estimates that the earthquake caused $34 billion of damage.
As far as the more far-sighted capitalists are concerned, erratic and unpredictable behaviour and zig-zag policies of Erdogan make him an unreliable representative of the capitalist class. Incredibly, Erdogan continues to insist on his unorthodox economic policy that reducing the interest rates will curb inflation. Accordingly, Turkey’s central bank slashed interest rates from 19% in late 2021 to 8.5% in February this year.
The Ukraine war was another demonstration that Erdogan is not a leader that the US or advanced capitalist countries in the West can rely on in advancing their interests. For months, Erdogan vetoed Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership accession. While equipping Ukraine with drones, Turkey also kept a close relationship with Russia despite sanctions.
Given the highly polarised situation in Turkey, Erdogan will be desperate to do anything he can to win the election and protect his power and prestige. Prior to the earthquake, the government introduced a series of populist policies, including early retirement for some, to prop up the social base of the government. Recently, Erdogan announced that the state will pay the gas bills of every household for a month.
A few years ago, the AKP changed the laws to make it possible for different political parties to enter into electoral alliances to increase the number of seats for the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
They are also now in electoral alliance with Huda-par (Free Cause Party), a right-wing Islamic fundamentalist organisation that is closely affiliated with Kurdish Hezbollah. It is a political party that is staunchly against women’s rights. This move is another indication of the desperation of AKP.
In the meantime, the Erdogan regime is going ahead with other democratic attacks. This includes court cases against the Istanbul mayor Imamoglu and against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
How far Erdogan could go to protect his position if he loses the elections cannot be predicted beforehand. Similar to the events in the US and Brazil after Trump and Bolsonaro lost the elections, it is entirely possible that the AKP might try to mobilise a street force and challenge the election results.
In contrast to Trump and Bolsonaro, however, Erdogan still enjoys a much larger social base and controls the upper echelons of the state machinery, including the armed services. Especially since the attempted coup attempt of 2016 – led by a right-wing religious clan, the Gulenists – Erdogan managed to strengthen his grip over the Turkish military, police service, judiciary and other elements of the state bureaucracy.
Although it seems unlikely, it cannot be ruled that Erdogan could go as far as organising a coup, especially if he thinks that he has the backing of the establishment. If he takes this road, however, this will not be in the interests of the capitalist class and is likely to lead to bloody conflicts.
The Nation Alliance
The Nation Alliance, which is led by the CHP, is made up of six political parties. This electoral alliance includes former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former finance minister Ali Babacan who both served under Erdogan. They are both complicit in the attacks on ordinary working-class people and the devastation caused by the earthquake in southeast Turkey. There are also three more right-wing parties in this coalition.
Understandably, there will be many people who would vote for the Nation Alliance out of desperation to get rid of the ‘hated’ Erdogan. Ordinary people are angry about the standard of living and attacks on democratic rights, including the freedom of speech.
The Nation Alliance has a good chance of winning the election but this won’t be because there is any enthusiasm for the alliance. The alliance lacks a clear programme. Apart from agreeing to remove Erdogan and a general agreement in defending the interests of the capitalist class, there is nothing that unites them. It is almost certain that there will be splits in this unstable alliance after the elections.
The strategy of the CHP is to build a broad movement against Erdogan and they are willing to cooperate with anyone who opposes Erdogan. This includes an ex-AKP minister who is now standing as a CHP candidate in Ankara.
The candidate of the Nation Alliance, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is seen as an honest ex-civil servant from a poor working-class background and he is also from an oppressed religious minority group called Alevism. However, the coalition he is leading represents not the interests of ordinary people but the interests of big businesses. While he does use left rhetoric sometimes, in the main he acted as a brake on social movements as he tried to keep the opposition under his control, within the boundaries of the parliament.
The Nation Alliance pledges to reduce inflation and return back to the previous parliamentary system. Given the current state of the global and Turkish economy, however, they will have very limited room to implement any policies that will benefit the working class. Instead, they will be passing on brutal austerity policies.
Young people who have not seen any other government apart from the AKP government will have huge expectations from a government led by the Nation Alliance. But the honeymoon period will be extremely short. This, in turn, could help the new generation of working-class young people to draw on more socialist conclusions.
Labour and Freedom Alliance
What is clear is that an explosive period is opening up in Turkey. The left-wing forces in the parliament and outside the parliament, such as the pro-Kurdish HDP and the recently formed Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), must not sow illusions in the pro-capitalist opposition parties. Instead, the left must build an independent working-class movement, with a socialist programme, to be prepared for what is going to come after the elections.
In this respect, it is unfortunate that the left did not put forward a presidential candidate in the first round. Standing in the first round does not let Erdogan win unless he gets more than 50% of the votes. But by standing the left would have put forward a working-class alternative and appeal to the broad sections of the working class on the basis of a socialist programme. Such a programme could have appealed to some working-class people who are thinking of voting for Erdogan because they have no faith in the Nation Alliance.
On the basis of an energetic campaign in the trade unions and local communities, the candidate could have got a significant vote. Raising class demands, such as nationalisation of energy companies, fully-funded inflation-proof pay rises and a mass programme of social housing could have had an electrifying effect.
But instead, the left abandoned the presidential elections in favour of the pro-capitalist Nation Alliance. In other words, they succumbed to the ‘lesser evilism’ mood in society. The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) justifies this decision on the grounds that the earthquake was a game-changer.
Nevertheless, it is positive for the Labour and Democracy Alliance, led by the HDP and Workers Party of Turkey (TIP), to be standing in the parliamentary elections. Due to the possible ban, the HDP will be contesting these elections under the banner of the left-liberal Party of Greens and the Left Future.
Unfortunately, the HDP has shifted more to the right since 2016 and succumbed to identity politics. It lacks a clear programme that can enthuse Kurdish workers or appeal to broader sections of the working class in Turkey. In essence, the HDP is a popular frontist organisaion that works together with pro-capitalist politicians. But despite all their limitations, the party still enjoys significant support amongst the oppressed Kurdish people as they are seen as the champion of Kurdish rights.
The TIP, however, is running the most vibrant left-wing campaign. By putting forward left-wing ideas they are able to enthuse many young people who are fed up with the right-wing shift of the self-claimed social-democratic CHP. The popularity of the TIP is an indication of the yearning for socialist ideas and a mass workers’ party in Turkey. They already have four representatives in the Turkish parliament and they are hoping to increase this number. As well as journalists and celebrities, they have striking workers, trade unionists and local campaigners standing on their lists. Having more workers’ representatives in the parliament would be an important step forward.
The TIP was founded in 2017 by a group called the People’s Communist Party of Turkey (HTKP), a split from the Stalinist Communist Party of Turkey after the Gezi Park protests. They have opened their doors to other left-wing organisations, including some Trotskyist organisations that have dissolved their organisations and papers. They are not a mass party yet, but it has the potential to become one.
Moreover, the leader of the TIP does not shy away from saying he is a socialist revolutionary and talks about the need to build a socialist movement. The leading members of the TIP come from the ‘Marxist’ Stalinist tradition, so they often feel the need to use revolutionary rhetoric. But, in practice, the TIP is putting forward a left reformist programme, at this stage. They are already watering down some parts of their programme. In essence, they are putting forward a minimum and maximum programme rather than putting forward transitional demands. They should link ‘bread-and-butter’ issues with the need to transform society along socialist lines.
Although the success of the TIP would be an important step forward to popularise socialist ideas unless they put forward a rounded-out socialist programme and a strategy it could be another short-lived experience in building a political alternative for the workers’ movement in Turkey.
Despite all the programmatic and organisational limitations of these left-wing formations, given their relative strength, it is possible to take important steps to fight for a genuine left front. This should not just involve the HDP and the TIP but also the Communist Party (TKP), Left Party (SOL) and others. Such a front can bring together not just different left-wing organisations together but there can be a separate section for workers who might not have any affiliations to a political party. We would argue that such a front should have a federal structure with trade unions playing a central role. It could act as a democratic workers’ parliament to encourage maximum participation. This would be a positive step in building a mass political voice for the working class.
Preparing for the fight to come
This election provides a unique opportunity to not only get rid of the increasingly unpopular Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), but the election campaign and what is likely to develop after the elections has the potential to revitalise the workers’ movement and popularise socialist ideas amongst the wide layers in the society.
Neither the AKP nor the Nation Alliance has a solution to the problems facing working-class and young people. They offer nothing but austerity and attacks on ordinary people.
On the other hand, the success of the TIP and other left-wing parties (this includes the Communist Party of Turkey, the Left Party and other independent socialist candidates) would be an important step forward to be better prepared for the battles ahead. But that on its own is not enough. Marxists should have perspectives on what it is like to develop and fight for a Marxist programme. As well as fighting for a new mass workers’ party with a socialist programme, it is vital to rebuild the trade unions, the main defence organisation of the working class.
Even though there are still low levels of trade union activity, there have been important battles on the industrial front, with workers taking militant action against the bosses. A vital part of the struggle against the likes of Erdogan and other defenders of capitalism will be rebuilding trade unions and transforming them into combative, democratic organisations of the working class.
The struggles taking place in other parts of the world, such as the mass movements in Sri Lanka, are likely to come to Turkey as well. The left must be prepared to intervene in these movements to offer a clear socialist strategy and programme.
Such a programme would include the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management, as part of a democratically planned socialist economy.