Turkish Elections: The Forces of Progress deserve our Solidarity

The cracks are beginning to show – now more than ever, we must take a stand against international complicity and show solidarity with the Kurdish and Turkish left

Today the first elections under the new electoral system will take place in Turkey, under an ongoing state of emergency since the attempted coup in July 2016. In the midst of a failing economy, spiralling inflation and increasingly fraught international relations, President Erdoğan called an snap election in April, almost exactly a year after the controversial 2017 referendum which approved plans for an executive presidency. Despite irregularities and accusations of missing ballots, the result means a transformation of Presidential powers, centralising political power in what was hitherto a supposedly neutral role and which before 2007 had been elected by parliament rather than directly. As such, the elections taking place today will be both for the parliament and for the first time, new Presidential elections. After 16 years of rule by the AKP and Erdoğan – first as Prime Minister and since 2014 as President – Turkey has been transformed from what was supposedly a reforming, modern, liberal administration hailed by the European press to a dictatorship under the ‘New Sultan’. Given the extent of voter suppression and the shutting down of all critical news agencies under the state of emergency law, no one is expecting these elections to be held free and fairly. Already we have seen election observers, MPs from Germany’s Die Linke and the Swedish Green Party, blocked from entering Turkey. Polling stations have been relocated away from Kurdish regions towards pro-AKP regions.

It goes without saying that Erdoğan would not have called early elections were he not expecting to win handsomely. The logic behind holding them early rather than when they are originally due in November 2019 is to avoid the impact of a likely worsening economic climate. There is also the jingoist element - elections were called shortly after Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, one of the cantons in Rojava or West Kurdistan that had been governed by the Kurdish council commune system before January. The hyper-nationalist political culture in Turkey saw football clubs forced to celebrate the Afrin invasion with choreographed stunts in stadiums, used to promote the AKP and their neo-Ottoman, expansionary vision of Turkey’s role in the Middle East. But Erdoğan’s position of strength is precarious – these elections are about cementing his position, providing a figleaf of democracy to cover over the cracks of the state of emergency and increasing authoritarianism.

The Turkish economy, characterised by vast private debt and (declining) foreign market investment, has been suffering, with the lira falling 40% since the 2016 coup attempt and inflation at 12%, making daily cost of living increasingly expensive. To put this in context, a kilo of potatoes is now six lira, the equivalent of a pound, where normally in this season it would be one lira for a kilo. A kilo of onions is 6.5 lira. The minimum (and typical) wage is 1600 lira a month. The lira rallied slightly after Erdoğan bent to market pressure to increase interest rates which came shortly after a meeting in London with investors – fund managers were apparently spooked by Erdoğan’s resistance to raising interest rates to tackle the imminent financial crisis. The overreliance on foreign investment compounds Turkey’s problems as inward investment has stalled since the coup attempt. Erdoğan’s election rhetoric has focused a great deal on the “interference” of foreign capitalists in the economy, blaming them for Turkey’s economic woes and even appealing to Turkish patriots to convert any foreign money they had into Turkish lira (win the wild hope that this might improve currency exchange rates).

The uncertain economic climate is of course deeply connected to the political instability of the last few years. The breakdown, following the HDP’s breakthrough in the June 2015 elections, of the Turkey-PKK peace process in 2015 was a key turning point. The HDP is a coalition of the Turkish and Kurdish left, and in 2015 denied Erdoğan’s AKP a parliamentary majority and the 2/3rds needed to pass constitutional reforms, forcing snap elections in November of the same year between which two huge terror attacks targeted HDP supporters killing over one hundred socialist activists. An EU investigation has recently established that the October 2015 ISIS attack on an HDP rally in Ankara, killing 95, was commissioned by the AKP government. Despite this, the HDP were able to hold on in the November elections to surpass the 10% threshold, albeit by a smaller margin. This threshold is a key instrument of control aimed at stopping smaller parties – and Kurdish parties – from gaining parliamentary representation, and the HDP’s success in forging an alliance between leftist parties and revolutionaries in Turkey has been incredibly successful in overcoming this hurdle. For parties who don’t reach 10% of the national vote, their votes in constituencies where they poll first are distributed to the second party – in most HDP regions this is the AKP, so the HDP gaining 10% massively reduces the chances of the AKP in forming a majority.

For partly this reason, the opposition parties and supporters of all non-AKP parties have gone through a slight rapprochement during this election campaign in an attempt to evict Erdoğan from office. The main opposition party CHP – the heirs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularist, modernist, nationalist movement – have traditionally been hostile to Kurdish political aspirations – in recent years they voted with the AKP-MHP government to remove immunity of prosecution for parliamentarians, paving the way for the arrest and incarceration of HDP parliamentarians including the current Presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş who campaigns from prison. The CHP also backed Erdoğan’s military attacks and human rights violations in Kurdish areas in 2015-6, as well as the invasion and occupation of Afrin this year. The CHP understands that it needs the support of Kurds – about 20% of the Turkish population – in order for their Presidential candidate Muharrem İnce to have any chance of reaching the second round of the Presidential elections due to be held in two weeks’ time if there is no 50+% winner. İnce made the gesture of actually going to visit HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş in prison, calling for his immediate release, and polling indicates that many CHP voters may vote for the HDP in the parliamentary elections to ensure they achieve 10%, and HDP voters may vote for İnce in the Presidential elections to ensure Erdoğan doesn’t win in the first round. The popularity of İnce himself and the CHP’s liberal, tolerant electoral programme compared to that of the AKP-MHP reactionaries is visible in the massive public rallies in the last few days in Izmir and Istanbul, which saw 3-4 million turning out. The HDP rallies have been predictably huge too adding to the feeling that there is a growing popular movement against Erdoğan. This is contrasted by the AKP’s electoral alliance with its coalition partner, the far right MHP and courting of Turkish fascists and neoliberals alike, from Sedat Peker to Tansu Çiller - though Erdoğan’s absorption of the MHP may cause a collapse in MHP support, and problems for them post-election. It is precisely this coalition building between the far-right and the western-friendly neoliberals which has helped Erdoğan in his attempt to be seen as a modernising force abroad whilst carrying out untold repression inside and outside of Turkey’s borders, taking billions of Euros from the European Union to stem the flow of refugees from Syria who are then subject to racist attacks and horrendous conditions working 16 hour days, 7 days a week simply to subsist in camps.

The continued success of the HDP, facing down terrorist attacks, judicial constraints and arrest and imprisonment, undermines the Turkish nationalist project based on ethnic and cultural uniformity which is one of the few Kemalist remnants in the Islamist, neo-Ottoman Erdoğan regime. The assimilationist policies of successive Turkish governments aimed to dissipate Kurdish identity and “convert” Kurds into Turks. From the inception of the Turkish state, Kurds were seen as “potential Turks” that needed modernising – academics posit that this has now changed and the dominant Turkish nationalist discourse understands them to be an unredeemable “other”, as outsiders.1 The HDP’s ability in appealing beyond Kurds, its growth in popularity across the whole of Turkey (where it needs to stand in order to attain the national 10% vote average) has made it more of a threat to the established parties and the racist, discriminatory Turkish nationalism which places Kurds outside of Turkish culture. Indeed, video footage from a “secret” meeting of AKP supporters emerged in which Erdoğan asked the audience to do “special work” against the HDP, highlighting them as the main hurdle to his electoral goals. “You know who is who,” he said, alluding to local HDP activists that must be targeted. Just a few days later on 14th June in Suruç, the border town where one of the 2015 ISIS attacks on socialist youth activists took place, AKP campaigners attacked pro-HDP Kurdish shopkeepers for flying Kurdish colours and shot one dead, Adil Şenyaşar, who was found to have had 17 bullets fired into his body at close range. As others defended themselves with weapons, the AKP candidate’s brother was shot dead after which his family sought revenge by going to the hospital were Şenyaşar’s brother was receiving treatment and beat him and his father to death . Violence against Kurds during electoral campaigns is now normal in Turkey, in 2015 there were cases of popular violence as well as state-sponsored terrorism – there have even been previous cases of mobs surrounding a hospital where an injured Kurd is being treated in order to “finish him off.”

In the face of this overwhelming campaign of continued violence under an authoritarian government which has invited comparisons with the Fascist and Francoist regimes in Europe in the 30s and Pinochet’s Chile, the HDP have run an overwhelmingly positive campaign. Even Demirtaş’ campaign from prison has been full of humour. After an Erdoğan speech in early May in which he said “I will step down when the people say TAMAM (enough!)”, the hashtag TAMAM trended number one worldwide on twitter with 2million tweets as people took to social media to tell Erdoğan he was no longer wanted. When Demirtaş’ twitter account (operated via his legal team) came late to its involvement in the twitterstorm, he blamed it on his kettle, since the hapless prison guards had previously become so confused that Demirtaş was tweeting from prison that they picked the only electrical object in his cell – a small kettle – to check he was not using it to communicate with outside. On June 5th, two high school students were arrested in Istanbul for spray painting a kettle on a wall – its danger lying in the fact it symbolises Demirtaş, and therefore hope for the future. Unable to hold public rallies, Demirtaş has addressed voters from prison via his wife’s mobile phone when she is allowed her allotted weekly phonecall with him. He used this to deliver a message of incredible optimism:

As citizens living on the most beautiful, richest lands in the world, of course, none of us deserve such bad governance. We deserve neither sadness nor poverty. This is not our inevitable fate, we are not obliged or condemned to this… I am here within four walls, but I know that thousands of Demirtaş’ are out in fields, on farms, picking hazelnuts. Demirtaş is in the mine, in the factory. He is in class, at university, on the ground. Demirtaş is on construction sites, on strikes, in protests. He is the fired, he is the unemployed, the poor. He is the youth, the woman and the child. He is Turkish, Kurdish, Circassian, Pomak, Bosnian. He is Alevi, Sunni, but he is still hopeful and vigorous.

As I write, news is coming through of election observers from the UK being arrested and monitored, and in the past 3 days 60 HDP polling clerks have been arrested in Sirnak, 20 in Van and over a dozen in Ankara. The orchestrated irregularities to manufacture support for Erdoğan’s AKP have been greeted by silence from the international community. Whilst Germany and the Netherlands stopped Erdoğan holding electoral rallies there last year, Theresa May welcomed the Butcher of Ankara during the election campaign, a visit he used to attempt to prove his credentials of statesmanship and international respectability. There have also been attempts by AKP supporters in Britain using community events with Labour Party politicians to stage electoral pitches – a community iftar at a mosque in Stoke Newington with financial links to both AKP and the far-right MHP included an electoral address from the Turkish consul-general, and outraged Kurds when guest speaker Sadiq Khan’s words were misconstrued by a Turkish far-right news agency who were covering the event. There are around half a million people of Turkish origin in Britain, a vast proportion of these are Kurds and many are political refugees. As such the vote against Erdoğan will be high – in the 2017 referendum, around 80% of eligible voters in Britain voted No to Erdoğan’s reforms. Turkish citizens in Britain voted last week and this year turnout was up by around 50%. Following Theresa May’s welcoming of Erdoğan to London and the huge counter-protests it provoked, it was shocking to see fewer than ten MPs turn up to a House of Commons debate on the elections and human rights concerns in Turkey, the first of its kind in six years.

The HDP and Demirtaş attempt to stage a Corbyn-style upset is admirable and must be supported by socialists across the world, not least because of Turkey’s crucial role in the Syrian civil war and relationship with ISIS and FSA gangs. Erdoğan’s superficial response to the Gaza shootings – expelling Israeli diplomats and trolling Netanyahu on Twitter – has perhaps fooled people into thinking that Turkey acts as a counter-weight to Israel in the Middle East. But as Haaretz spelled out, the best option for Israel would be a continuation of AKP rule – indeed, the AKP-MHP coalition voted down the attempt by opposition parties to impose economic sanctions on Israel in response to the Gaza shootings in May. As Kurds are killed by AKP thugs in Suruç merely for demonstrating their political views, with democracy on shutdown and the HDP in prison, the forces of progress deserve our solidarity for withstanding the pogroms and arrests to bring a message of hope for the future. Using his televised election broadcasts to decry capitalism and war in equal measure (“capitalism kills… It kills our cultures, our environment, our beliefs and our hopes”), Demirtaş namechecked the revolutionary figures from Turkey’s history and defied Erdoğan’s death penalty threat against him: “When planted, we come back as crop. When crushed, we come back as flour. When one of us is gone, we come back in thousands.” Whatever happens after tonight, and after the expected second Presidential round in two weeks, the cracks are beginning to show and Erdoğan’response won’t be pleasant – now more than ever, we must take a stand against international complicity and show solidarity with the Kurdish and Turkish left.

  1. Francis O’Connor & Bahar Baser (2018) Communal violence and ethnic polarization before and after the 2015 elections in Turkey: attacks against the HDP and the Kurdish population, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 18:1, 53-72