Turkey’s right-wing populist leader, Erdogan, secures highest votes in first round elections

Turkey's prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Photo: CC)

In a very tight presidential election held on Sunday 14 May, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s right-wing populist leader, managed to secure the highest votes for himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Even though the AKP and the electoral alliance it leads now has a comfortable majority in the parliament, Erdogan did not manage to win more than 50% of the votes to secure a victory in the first round of the presidential elections.

While Erdogan received around 49.5% of the total votes, the candidate of the pro-capitalist Nation Alliance, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, just scraped 44% of the votes. Sinan Ogan, the far-right nationalist candidate, got around 5%. The results, so far, show that Turkey remains a highly polarised society. The results mean that Turkish presidential elections will be going to a runoff on Sunday 28 May.

The presidential and parliamentary elections took place amid a historic cost-of-living crisis where inflation is predicted to be over 120%. The living standards of working and middle classes have eroded significantly since the economic crisis of 2018 which the pandemic has intensified.

The crisis for Erdogan’s regime and Turkish capitalism was further deepened after two powerful earthquakes hit south-eastern Turkey in February this year, killing over 50,000 people. Not only this rotten pro-capitalist government led by Erdogan was responsible for the scale of this disaster, the lack of rescue teams and basic necessities, such as tents and water added to the anger.

Given this situation, Erdogan fared better than expected and received around 49.5 of the total votes in the presidential elections. Even though this is a slight drop compared to the votes he received in 2018, Erdogan still got the most of the votes out of all other candidates.

Erdogan managed to do this by an incredible mobilisation of state resources. He was able to consolidate his base through a series of populist policies, including a significant pay rise for civil servants, early retirement for some workers and free gas bills for every household for a month. Erdogan also whipped up Turkish nationalism through the announcement of discovery of natural gas in the Black sea and Turkish-made cars and military equipment. This was combined with homophobic and sexist rhetoric.

The national question was a key feature in the election campaign. Erdogan used ‘divide and rule tactic’ to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiments, especially targeting the pro-Kurdish HDP party, and its jailed ex-leader, Selahattin Demirtas. This is despite the fact that Erdogan’s electoral alliance includes Hudapar, a Kurdish nationalist Islamic fundamentalist party that is closely affiliated to Kurdish Hezbollah.

The initial results could have a demoralising effect for a period, especially amongst young people who are fed up with Erdogan’s rule and who are desperate to see his back after the first round.

Their hopes were raised by the overly optimistic campaign by the Nation Alliance, led by the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, as they were predicting they would win in the first round.

The failure of this alliance to harness the anger in the society is due to the fact that they offered nothing apart from saying ‘they are not Erdogan’. This is an unstable ‘united’ alliance that involves several right-wing parties including the parties formed by the former finance minister, Ali Babacan, and the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who both served under the leadership of Erdogan. Another newly formed political party, called the Good Party (IYIP), split away from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Clearly, an election campaign almost solely based on ‘we are not Erdogan’ was not enough to win votes from disgruntled electorate that usually votes for Erdogan. This was also a failed strategy in the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections. The right-wing candidate who stood against Erdogan and endorsed by the CHP in the 2014 presidential elections, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, later become an Erdogan-supporter.

The popularity of the Nation Alliance amongst layers, including youth, was not due to any enthusiasm for the alliance but desperation to get rid of Erdogan, given the economic crisis and attacks on democratic rights. Kilicdaroglu, who comes from an oppressed religious group called Alevism, has also got his highest votes in Kurdish cities, as he was backed by the pro-Kurdish left People’s Democratic Party (HDP)

Although it seems unlikely, it is still possible that Kilicdaroglu could make a comeback in the run-off elections. He leads a broad opposition against Erdogan and he is backed by more far-sighted capitalists. The mouthpieces of capitalism, such as the Economist magazine, have openly endorsed the candidacy of Kilicdaroglu. But at the moment Erdogan has the upper hand as he has a strong grip over the state bureaucracy and media.

Parliamentary elections

In the parliamentary elections, the People’s Alliance led by Erdogan – which is made out of several far-right parties – was able to gain the overall majority. While the AKP’s vote share has significantly decreased compared to previous elections, other right-wing parties in the coalition were able to increase their votes. This includes three seats for Hudapar.

Although the self-claimed ‘social democratic’ Kemalist CHP was able to increase the number of their MPs to 169, some of these seats will be allocated to the smaller right-wing parties in the Nation coalition. This means the overall makeup of the new parliament will be predominantly made up of right-wing and far-right parties.

However, it is positive that the left-wing Labour and Freedom alliance, which is made out of the HDP and the newly formed Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP), will have 66 seats in parliament, around 10% of the total votes. The TIP was able win almost a million votes in the first elections in which they stood, and they managed to keep their four seats in the parliament.

This small number of left-wing MPs in the parliament can act as a springboard for the workers’ movement if they use their positions effectively. Rather than putting forward left populist policies, the TIP should raise a socialist programme by putting forward class demands.

Further steps should now be taken to strengthen and potentially extend this alliance to offer a socialist way out of this crisis. Discussions need to take place with other workers’ organisations to discuss the next steps in building an independent working-class movement with a socialist programme. This can not only get rid of Erdogan but to take power out of the hands of the super-rich and transform the living standards of the majority.

Building the forces of socialism

Whatever the results are on 28 May, it is clear that the right had a breakthrough in the Turkish parliamentary elections. Objectively speaking, this is a defeat for the left.

The failure of the left to put forward a socialist alternative and to build a strong base in working-class areas in these elections, including in the presidential elections, have allowed the far-right to make important gains.

However, even if Erdogan wins the runoff elections, the next four years will not be a stable period for Erdogan. The day after the elections the Turkish markets slumped and the currency, the Lira, depreciated. Erdogan is seen as an unreliable representative of the capitalist class.

There is no prospect of economic recovery, at least in the short-term. More vicious attacks on the working class, including against democratic rights, are on the way. There can be no faith in the pro-capitalist opposition parties to bring an end to Erdogan’s rule or what he represents.

It is crucial for the left to build an independent mass working-class movement, with a socialist programme, to be prepared for the fight to come. This would include raising democratic demands, in a transitional way, and defending the national and democratic rights of Kurdish people. Such a movement has the potential to enthuse the working-class, including those who are voting for Erdogan because they see no alternative.

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the magnificent Gezi Park resistance at the end of this month, where millions of people were out on the streets against Erdogan’s authoritarian regime. Same struggles, on a much higher scale, are on the agenda.

Learning from the past defeats will be vital in this period. A serious discussion needs to take place within the workers’ movement to politically arm the working-class and prepare the forces of socialism for what is going to be an unstable period, with many opportunities for Marxists to grow their support.


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