Turkey: Building a socialist voice for the working class to resist Erdogan

President Erdogan (Photo: Wikimedia commons)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory in the May 2023 elections, beating the pro-capitalist opposition alliance, have come as a surprise for many who desperately wanted to see the back of Erdogan in the midst of an historic cost-of-living crisis. 

Erdogan’s retreat from his unorthodox view, after the elections, that lower interest rates curbs inflation, and the appointment of more reliable Mehmet Simsek as the finance minister and Hafize Gaye Erkan as the new central bank governor, have signalled a return, at least in terms of economic management, to a stable economic programme in the eyes of investors. 

But the underlying crisis of Turkish capitalism, in a period of highly volatile international political and economical order, shows no sign of recovery despite shallow growth after the elections. This will be a government that will be hell-bent on making the working class pay for the failings of their system. 

Far from signalling a return to a stable equilibrium, therefore, Erdogan’s victory signals the opening up of a new explosive period with opportunities for the left to politically intervene, raise socialist ideas and politically arm the working class. The question of building a mass political voice for the working class with a socialist programme and the forging of a mass revolutionary party therefore is sharply posed in this era.

Despite favourable objective conditions, the failure of the main opposition bloc led by Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) – which brought together a coalition of pro-capitalist parties including the far-right – have led to the questioning of how to defeat Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. More importantly, this electoral defeat should open up discussions amongst the workers’ movement and the youth, in particular, what programme and strategy is needed for a society that meets their aspirations. 

What is clear is that the widespread anger in the society in the face of a historic cost-of-living crisis, even amongst those who might have voted for Erdogan or other right-wing parties, will not dissipate away. 

Opinion polls regularly find out that for around 70% of people living in Turkey the most important issue is still the cost-of-living crisis. Even though official inflation is just over 61% as of November 2023, the real inflation felt by ordinary working-class people is much higher. It is predicted that inflation is over 120%. After the elections, the government has announced staggering VAT and fuel tax hikes which will only add to the suffering of ordinary working-class people in Turkey. 

Workers Party of Turkey (TIP)

Given the political opportunities in the coming period, steps need to be taken to rebuild the organisations of the working class and build a mass socialist alternative to Erdogan’s crisis ridden regime. 

The electoral success of the newly formed Workers’ Party of Turkey and the enthusiasm they created amongst a certain layer, in particular amongst the youth, is an indication that the ground is fertile for the creation of a mass political voice for the working class. 

The TIP was only formed in 2017 by the People’s Communist Party (HTKP), a group that split away from the ‘Stalinist’ Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) (after the 2013 Gezi Park movement) over political and organisational differences. 

In the 2018 general elections, due to undemocratic laws, the TIP was not able to stand in elections. Instead, they made an electoral  pact with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that allowed the leader of the TIP Erkan Bas and another leading member Baris Atay to stand in the elections under the HDP lists. After the elections, they resigned from the HDP and formed their own group in the parliament. Later, Ahmet Sik from the HDP and Sera Kadigil from the CHP defected to the TIP, bringing the total number of TIP representatives to four in the parliament. 

During these years, the TIP representatives, in particular Erkan Bas, used their position in the parliament to raise the voice of ordinary people with fiery speeches. Over these years the TIP gained more popularity and managed to attract a layer of young people who are looking for a socialist alternative. They were able to partly fill the vacuum that existed on the left. 

In explaining their election strategy for the 2023 elections, the leader of the TIP wrote that they aim to be a voice for workers and they would like to encourage workers, community campaigners, university students, LGBTQ+ activists to stand in the upcoming elections, even if they are not members of the TIP. 

In the May 2023 parliamentary elections they formed the Labour and Freedom Alliance with the HDP. This alliance received 5,744,004 votes in total and now has 65 representatives in the Turkish Parliament (out of 600). The TIP received almost one million votes (1.73%) and managed to get four MPs elected, even though they did not stand everywhere to not cut across the HDP votes in marginal areas. 

Another left-wing electoral alliance, United forces of Socialists, which is made up of the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) and the Left Party (SOL) and several other groups, received 159,405 votes and did not manage to win any seats.

In terms of the programme they offer, the TIP goes beyond the programme of new left populist formations, such as Corbyn in Britain or Syriza in Greece. Its official programme states that:

“The prerequisite of socialism is to seize power by a revolution achieved by the working-class, under the leadership of the party and with the participation of various segments of the society. This political revolution is followed by a social revolution, which ensures the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and the transformation of all social relationships starting with the relations of production. Socialism is the transition phase, which starts with the political revolution and continues with the social revolution, between capitalist society and classless society. At this stage, it is the main objective of the working-class, who is to build socialist democracy by smashing the capitalist state machine and suppressing counter-revolutionary forces whose intention is to maintain wage slavery, to take the building of socialism further and to fight for the world revolution, which will secure the complete disappearance of class societies.” 

Even though a watered down version of this programme was presented in the actual election campaign, the TIP did raise socialist demands such as renationalisation and the need to introduce a planned economy. 

While putting forward a socialist programme was necessary, it was not enough to build a broad base amongst the working class. The TIP should take qualitative steps to sink roots in working-class areas. Where they have achieved this, they have done extremely well. In Defne, one of the areas severely affected by the devastating earthquake a few months ago, they came second with 28% of the votes. 

In a period where there are enormous attacks on working-class and young people, the TIP has the potential to spearhead a united mass working-class movement to fight for ‘bread and butter’ issues and offer a socialist alternative. For instance, they can organise mass leafleting sessions and together with trade unions co-host rallies around the country about the cost of living crisis and offer a way out of the crisis. 

One vote for Kemal and one vote for the TIP

The biggest strategic mistake of the TIP in the last elections was to uncritically support the presidential candidate of the Nation Alliance, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Their official slogan during the election campaign was ‘one vote for Kemal and one vote for the TIP’, reflecting the mood in the society at that time. 

Understandably, many working-class and young people desperately wanted Erdogan to go in the first round. Unlike other right-wing candidates that the CHP put forward in the past, such as Ekmelledin Ihsanoglu, Kilicdaroglu was seen as an acceptable candidate, as he considers himself a social democrat and comes from an oppressed Islamic sect known as Alevism. 

However, the nation alliance represents the interests of big business and offered no policy whatsoever that would alleviate the issues facing the working class or youth. They were in favour of privatisation and neoliberal attacks on the working class and poor, even if they did not explicitly state it. Moreover, the Nation Alliance was a coalition made up from right-wing and far-right groups. 

After the first round of presidential elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu pledged to deport all migrants, in a desperate attempt to win the second round. On the day he announced this, the TIP stepped up its campaign to get Kemal Kilicdaroglu elected in order to get rid of Erdogan. 

Marxists should not shy away from being in a minority sometimes. Had the TIP fought for, or even at least discussed, fielding its own candidate for the presidential election in the first round, they would have had the opportunity to put forward a socialist alternative to both Erdogan and the Nation Alliance. Even if it received modest votes, it would have laid a marker for the future. 

Working-class organisation

The formation of a united front of workers’ and socialist organisations  is of vital necessity, especially in this period of low levels of class consciousness and organisation. The 1980 military coup during the height of class struggle in Turkey, which imposed a military-police dictatorship and outlawed trade unions and some political parties and the right to strike, was a massive setback for the workers’ movement. Thousands of working-class activists were imprisoned and tortured. 

Prior to the coup, the socialist movement in Turkey was on the ascent. There were mass militant trade unions who were organising strikes and mass rallies. Twelve militant trade unions even founded a mass political party, Workers Party of Turkey in 1961 (not to be confused with the current TIP), with 15 MPs in 1965. 

Towards the late 1980’s, there was an uptick in strikes showing that the left were regaining strength. This period was known as the ‘spring protests’, which included a magnificent march of around 100,000 miners and their families from Zonguldak, a coal mining town in north Turkey, to the capital city Ankara against privatisation and the pit closures. 

But the collapse of Stalinism, combined with the setback after the military coup of 1980, threw back consciousness and working-class organisation, not just in Turkey but worldwide. Even the most advanced layers in the working class were confused as a result. 

Since then, there have been low levels of struggle and socialist groups, who were once powerful, were marginalised. Militant trade union confederations, such as the Revolutionary Workers Unions Confederation (DISK) become increasingly right-wing and bureaucratic. 

In this context, the achievement of the TIP in the last elections, not only in terms of the number of votes they received, but in terms of popularising socialist ideas, are certainly welcome and should be seen as a step forward. 

From a couple of thousand members, their membership has now surged to around 40,000 and they are growing. The leadership of the TIP recognises that this surge in membership creates problems for a ‘revolutionary’ organisation and they stress the need to build cadres, the framework of a revolutionary party, and a definition of what constitutes a member. 

While it is vital to build a broad formation of the working class, there is a vital need to build a mass revolutionary party, with roots in the working class, to offer a socialist programme and strategy to defeat capitalism. If the TIP aspires to become such a party, then they will need to be tested during the course of struggle. 

But even though the TIP managed to receive almost one million votes on a left radical programme, they are more of an electoral phenomenon. If they don’t take steps to build their authority amongst the organised working class, then their votes could also collapse by the time of the next elections. It is not enough to simply preach socialism or have a ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric. They will need to formulate concrete demands, starting from the general consciousness of the working class, through a series of transitional demands, and linking to the need for a socialist transformation of the society. 

United front

In this respect, in the period following the collapse of Stalinism with low levels of working class consciousness and organisation, it is vital to build a united front with workers’ organisations and trade unions, and to build a collective joint struggle against Erdogan’s regime and offer a socialist way out of the crisis. 

As mentioned above, there were two left alliances in the last elections. The TIP was in a coalition with the pro-Kurdish HDP and the Labour Party (EMEP) as part of the Labour and Freedom Alliance. Tactically, while this pact allowed the TIP to gain seats in the parliament by overcoming the antidemocratic 7% vote threshold to win seats, it raises questions about what the alliance should look like. 

The Labour and Freedom Alliance must be politically and organisationally strengthened and extended to become a pole of attraction to workers and young people who want to fight the cost of living crisis and against Erdogan’s regime.  

Regime’s ferocious attacks against the democratic rights of Kurdish people, including the jailing of many leading activists, have greatly weakened the organisational capacity of the HDP. 

But the HDP programmatically suffered as well as it moved further to the right. They accommodated themselves to ‘identity politics’ rather than appealing to all sections of the working class in Turkey. They dropped many of the class demands they once raised. 

The failure of the HDP to enthuse its social base in the last elections was reflected in the drop in electoral support. At the same time, some of the sectarian remarks, such as statements made by leading figures implying not to vote for the TIP, have further damaged the reputation of the HDP. 

Despite all the programmatic limitations of the HDP, it is still widely seen by Kurdish people as their own party. Solidarity with the HDP against state repression and racism, and fighting for the democratic and national rights of Kurdish people will be vital in this period. Any workers’ or socialist formation that doesn’t defend the democratic and national rights of Kurds and other oppressed minorities will not be able to win their confidence.

While the HDP (now rebranded as Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party) should be invited into a united front with workers’ organisations and socialist groups, an alliance should be based on clear class principles defending the interests of the working class by raising a socialist programme. The alliance should champion the rights of women and oppressed minorities, which is part and parcel of the fight for socialist change. 

With membership of thousands of militant workers and youth, the TIP, the Communist Party, the Left Party, the Labour Party and other socialist groups, could fight together to defend the interests of the working class and raise socialist ideas. But an alliance – a coalition of the willing – should not just be simply an amalgamation of different groups. It should be federal and genuinely democratic to maximise the active participation of the mass of the working class. 

Such an alliance, while making it possible for participating organisations to keep their independence, could be a pole of attraction for workers and youth who want to fight back against Erdogan’s brutal regime. By participating in an alliance, the TIP could potentially reach a more politically active working class and youth and win them over to their organisation by deed as well as through discussions and debate. 

Certainly, the upcoming local elections in March 2024 will be an important opportunity for the left to raise socialist ideas and even win positions. But this should be part of a wider strategy to build the biggest electoral strategy to offer a socialist alternative to both Erdogan’s AKP and other pro-capitalist parties, including the CHP. 

Fighting for socialism

Erdogan’s regime and subsequently Turkish capitalism is in a dire situation and faces a multitude of crises. This will be an unstable government in a period of intensifying capitalist rivalry worldwide. 

There is no reason for the mass struggles taking place in Sri Lanka for not to be repeated in Turkey, as well. Workers’ organisations, as well as socialist groups, would need to be prepared to mobilise the full potential of the working class, not just to defeat Erdogan and his party but to fight for socialist change. 

Despite the relative calm and the demoralisation of wide layers in the society after the elections, there is certainly the potential of the development of spontaneous movements, as well as factory occupations and mass walkouts.

 The recent struggle of Ozak textile workers in Urfa for union recognition shows the way forward. The scandalous state repression against this group of workers, many of whom are women, has failed to dampen the mood. More industrial disputes, on a far higher scale, is on the agenda. This is what Erdogan’s regime and the bosses fear the most. 

At the same time it is clear that there are still low levels of organisations and consciousness. Rebuilding the organisations of the working class, including the trade unions and a mass political voice for workers and youth, armed with a socialist programme, is a vital necessity. 

But as well as fighting for such a party, there needs to be the development of a mass revolutionary party that can offer a way forward and a revolutionary socialist programme with the perspective of overthrowing capitalism. The demands such as the non-payment of debt and other socialist policies, including the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management, will be vital to raise a programme that can unite different layers of the working class. The writings of great revolutionary thinkers- mainly Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Trotsky – will be vital in the process of forging a mass revolutionary party that will be capable of taking on these mammoth tasks.  

 

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