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Turkey: the Phantom Election

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Turkey’s elections have stunned the whole world. A turnaround of such a magnitude in a matter of five months is probably unprecedented in electoral history. Having lost a full one fifth of its electorate (nine percentage points) in the general elections of 7 June earlier this year, the AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president of the republic and formerly prime minister, made an unbelievable comeback in the snap elections held on 1st November. It regained all that it had given away earlier, receiving close to half the popular vote. Two million votes taken away from the fascist party, the MHP; one million from the HDP, the predominantly Kurdish party; half a million form a fundamentalist Islamist party, the predecessor of the AKP, and another million from new strata that came to vote at a higher rate this time. By any standards, the volatility of the electoral figures, to use purposefully a term popular in stock market jargon, is extremely intriguing.

Not only that: the Turkish elections of 1st November join a whole series of elections this year, including the Israeli and the British, where opinion polls went totally astray. Having been lulled by poll after poll reporting an unchanged situation relative to 7 June, both domestic and international opinion was wholly taken aback when the electoral count flowed in.

The discrepancy between the opinion polls and the electoral results need not detain us here. What really matters is to explain the stunning volatility observed in the space of five months. Short of an apologetic cover-up for the AKP, the answer to the question of how the AKP rose from its ashes in such a short time should start with the characteristics of the electoral process that culminated in the polling of 1st November. Simply put, what took place cannot be characterised as an election. There was, to be sure, polling on election day and, judging from information so far available, the voting process conformed to internationally acceptable standards, barring certain exceptional but serious irregularities in the Kurdish region. The trouble is that electoral campaigning and propaganda had been rendered almost impossible for all parties except the AKP! These elections were unrecognisable in concrete experiential terms to anyone who has gone through a couple of electoral processes in Turkey. There were no such elections in living memory where the streets were empty during the period set aside legally for electioneering, where there were almost no rallies organised by even the major parties except for the AKP, where the only thing that reminded the populace of the existence of coming elections was television and … the state of media freedom was abysmal as we will see in a moment. These were phantom elections and therefore the results are only worth celebrations for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cohort, but cannot serve as a loyal indicator of where Turkey is going.

The War for Erdoğan’s Survival

The results of the elections of 7 June brought Erdoğan to the brink of a precipice: having lost majority in parliament, he now faced the possibility of a probe there into his many crimes, first and foremost the notorious corruption cases based on very serious files opened up in December 2013 on the heels of the Gezi events. The reopening of those files, closed earlier by a pliant AKP majority of MPs, would have meant, given the sheer strength of the dossiers, the indictment of four of his former ministers as well as his son and, in all probability, ultimately himself. It is now known to the whole world that in order to extricate himself from this difficult situation Erdoğan reignited the war against the Kurdish movement grouped around the PKK. The calculation was to show the HDP, the predominantly Kurdish parliamentary party that had crossed the threshold of 10 per cent in the June elections as a party of war not one of peace and thereby push it below that fateful threshold. The three months lasting from the end of June to the polling on 1st November saw a ferocious war effort that almost recreated images from the 1990s, the period of the so-called “dirty war” of the deep state against the Kurds. Many Kurdish cities and towns were literally invaded by the police special forces and the army, a round-the-clock curfew declared extending up to ten days and a lot of people, mostly civilians, murdered in cold blood whenever they dared to defy restrictions. This was accompanied by intense bombing of PKK strongholds in Northern Iraq. The PKK responded in kind, making raids on military barracks and setting up booby traps, killing many police officers and soldiers as a show of strength. Turkey was thrown into an orgy of violence.

The climax was, of course, the Ankara massacre on 10 October which took the lives of more than 100 demonstrators who descended on the streets, three weeks before the elections, to protest the war drive of the government. It may safely be claimed that the results of the polling on 1st November are a consequence more of the Ankara massacre than anything else. The government has attributed this massacre first and foremost to the suicide bombers of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS). Even if this is true, the question then arises of why intelligence was not able to detect the threat and why the ordinarily overbearing police did not set up checkpoints for the security of such a large crowd of people, probably reaching into the hundreds of thousands. The government is responsible for the Ankara massacre for it had been benignly neglecting the murderous attacks of ISIL on the Kurds at earlier stages.

Campaigning and Propaganda Gagged

It was in this atmosphere of violence and a suffocating series of restrictions and bans brought by the government and the judiciary, now almost totally under the control of the AKP government, that the electoral process, or whatever remained of it, unfolded. All the parties except for the AKP cancelled a part of their election rallies, with the HDP virtually abandoning the idea of having rallies for fear of another bomb attack. Ordinarily a time for boisterous fanfare, the pre-electoral period this time was played out in the quasi ghost towns of the Kurdish region that attested strongly to the phantom-like quality of the elections. This resulted in an increased rate of abstention in many a Kurdish city whereas overall, in the country at large, the rate of participation increased. The only deduction one can make is that the HDP lost perhaps hundreds of thousands of votes because the Kurdish population could not make it to the polls as a result of wilful state repression.

It was not only this, though, that hollowed out the substance of the elections. While it was the police and the army that resorted to repression of the population in the eastern, i.e. the Kurdish regions of Turkey, in the western part of the country it was directly the AKP’s thugs, in alliance with the notorious “Grey Wolves”, the youth organisation of the MHP, Turkey’s long-standing fascist movement, that intimidated and terrorised the Kurds and in particular the HDP. On a single night in early September, fully 146 premises of the HDP, including its headquarters in Ankara, the capital city, were attacked, vandalised, and in some cases torched. Of course, after the HDP abandoned all ostentatious public appearing, there was no longer any need of such intimidation and harassment!

The media were severely repressed. On the one hand, the premises of the daily Hurriyet, the flagship of the Turkish press, were attacked twice and a journalist working for both this newspaper and the TV channel CNN Turk was beaten by four thugs on the street. This created a kind of shock in these quarters, usually spared the kind of treatment the left constantly gets in Turkey. The resultant self-censorship of the media group in question was of significant consequence, since perhaps the major channel through which the HDP received coverage in mainstream media during the June elections, thus reaching out to a sizeable sector of modern petty-bourgeois or office workers of Turkish origin that was susceptible to vote for it was this media group and this journalist in particular.

The media was further gagged when several TV channels belonging to the fraternity led by Fethullah Gülen, a long-time ally of Erdoğan who recently broke with him after the Gezi rebellion, were brought off cable platforms for no reason at all. As for state media, the following statistical data reveal the utter one-sidedness of propaganda activity in the pre-electoral period. Within the last month before elections, the TRT, under close surveillance by the government, aired Erdoğan for 29 hours, Davutoğlu, the AKP prime minister, for 30 hours, while all the other parties were granted a meagre total of five hours, with the HDP receiving 18 minutes!

All in all, Turkey had a pre-electoral period in which the AKP used all means of propaganda, including rallies in a series of cities since they are certain that there will be no bombs exploded in their demos. The process blatantly ruled out equal formal rights to other parties. Now, if propaganda were not effective in electoral processes, no party would spend so much time, money and energy to reach out to the people through rallies and marches and marketplace electioneering and coffeehouse visits and motorcades. None of this was done by the other parties. Hence the party that was able to make itself heard to the people, especially in a time full of tragic events, was naturally able to win over large sections of the population to its views.

What is stunning is not the anomalous result. What is really shocking is that this kind of travesty can pass as elections in country that has had a multi-party parliamentary system for over half a century, albeit with brief interludes of military intervention. So this is where the AKP has brought the country. If permitted, it will definitely attempt to take it down further into the abyss.

Spasmodic Development

All this does not only mean that democracy is being blatantly trampled upon in Turkey. Even more important, in our view, is the other implication of this characterisation of “phantom elections”. We believe that the results of this poll do not reflect loyally the real balance of forces on the ground. It is not to be doubted that the consequences of this kind of distribution of parliamentary seats and the possibility of forming a single-party government for the AKP, all this also implying that the cases of corruption already touched upon will now be swept under the carpet once again, at least for a certain while—it is not to be doubted that all this will strengthen Erdoğan’s hand perceptibly in the first stage of the post-electoral period. This is all the more true now that many sectors of the ruling class seem ready to come to terms with Erdoğan for the sake of a supposed stability for the country politically and economically.

However, the dynamics at play behind the appearance of governmental majorities, the substance that really shapes the balance of forces in politics, are not as auspicious for the AKP as this electoral triumph suggests. In other words, although many commentators have already jumped to the conclusion that the next round of reckoning will be in 2019, when regular general elections are supposed to be held as well as elections for the post of president of the republic currently held by Erdoğan, we are of the opinion that earlier socio-political convulsions may lead to a precocious upsetting of the balance of forces leading to all kinds of outcomes. The reasons are several.

First, Turkey finds itself on the fault-line of three systems in deep crisis and is inevitably affected by upheavals in those systems. Its economy is deeply integrated with that of the European Union (EU) and is bound to suffer all the consequences of the vicissitudes that the latter’s economy might suffer in the near future. The AKP has been a dogged partisan of neo-liberal policies, carrying out extensive privatisation and imposing measures of labour flexibility and precarisation and will certainly protect the interests of capitalists in a crisis situation, attacking workers’ rights and gains even more ferociously. That is bound to create some reaction, on which more below.

Its politics is more and more tied to the vagaries of the Middle East. With Erdoğan and his erstwhile foreign minister, now prime minister Davutoğlu pursuing a policy of neo-Ottomanism based on a Sunni-sectarian orientation, Turkey is deeply involved in the Syrian maelstrom and further risks becoming a frontline state in the threatening sectarian confrontation in the Middle East between Sunni and Shia (with the Alevis, a distinct minority religious denomination in Turkey, historic allies of the Shia). Moreover, its reckless policy of underhanded alliance with ISIL has led to a situation where the latter has comfortably organised within Turkey and holds the lever of terroristic blackmail in its hands. Syria is also important from the standpoint of the Kurdish question. Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria, is a threat to the oppressor nationalism of the Turks not only because any autonomy for the Kurds is disturbing for Turkey in itself, but more so because the ruling force in Rojava, the PYD, is a historical ally, if not the Syrian section of the PKK, the guerrilla organisation that has been fighting for the national rights of the Kurds in Turkey for three decades now. These are all explosive questions that no government can easily master, let alone one which has received a lot of blows in the last two years.

Finally, Turkey is a neighbour to and is deeply involved economically with Russia. The crisis of Ukraine is no doubt a sign of further convulsions to come in the system formed by the former Soviet republics. The Caucasus, the Balkans and the Muslim populations of Russia and Central Asia are within the scope of interest of the Turkish bourgeoisie and may act as so many flashpoints in the near future.

Secondly, Turkey has been a country in ebullition for the last two and a half years. The country has gone through three major social upheavals in this brief span of time. It was first the popular rebellion triggered by the Gezi Park events that set almost the whole of Turkey in motion between June and September 2013. This was a revolt that was motivated not only by the protection of the environment in the face of a brutal project of commercialising the only park in the centre of the city. By no means underestimating that struggle, we would like to stress the fact that this revolt spread to scores of Turkish cities and brought out at least three and a half million people according to police figures, concentrating not only on the Gezi Park conflict but also on the brazen violation of freedoms across the board by the AKP government and its sectarian politics blatantly threatening the Alevi community in Turkey. If Erdoğan managed to dodge the threat posed by this popular rebellion, this was thanks to the Kurdish movement which hesitated to join the fray for fear of bringing down the only politician so far seemingly willing to come to terms with the Kurds.

So the Kurds kept aside during the Gezi revolt. When, roughly one year later, the Kurds themselves took to the streets in their millions, this time the layers of the Turkish working class or the petty-bourgeois that had developed an understanding of the Kurdish question during the Gezi events kept aloof to their revolt. We find here, in this state of disunion of the popular masses, one of the keys to the survival of Erdoğan and the AKP despite the appearance of these very strong movements.

The working class had not been part of the Gezi popular rebellion as workers. They had not stood out from the rest either with their specific demands or with their methods of struggle (strikes, occupation, formation of workers’ representative bodies etc.) peculiar to the proletariat. In fact, more generally speaking, the working class had largely been dormant during the rule of the AKP from 2003 all the way to the present situation. There were some exceptionally strong fights, such as that of the Tekel, state tobacco monopoly, workers who established a quasi commune in the heart of Ankara in the winter of 2009-2010 for two and a half months. But overall the proletarian movement was pacified and quiet, with large layers being AKP supporters.

This lull was broken last May, when tens of thousands of metalworkers (mostly auto workers) engaged in a wildcat strike against their yellow gangster union and later to a limited extent their bosses. This strike lasted for nearly a month and achieved important gains. Moreover, its reverberations were felt in other branches and industries, ranging from petroleum workers to ceramics. If an economic crisis sets in and contradictions between the classes become more acute, this militancy will possibly inspire much stronger resolve for other sections of the class. For the moment, the movement in the metal industry has subsided, at least partially under the impact of the Turkish chauvinism spread by the mouthpieces of the bourgeoisie under pretext of condemning “terrorism”. But the Tekel struggle, briefly mentioned above, has taught us that when Turkish and Kurdish workers engage in serious forms of class struggle, the ethnic prejudices are easy to overcome.

The Greatest Suicide Bomber of All

Thirdly, and not less importantly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become a historically important figure, whose measureless ambitions may lead the AKP and Turkey into catastrophe. Currently, these ambitions may be summed up under two headings. The first is more immediate: Erdoğan wishes to amend the Turkish constitution so as to establish a presidential system rather than the current parliamentary system so that he can rule the country single-handedly, wielding the powers of an executive president rather than the mostly ceremonial ones he now enjoys. This is anathema to large swathes of the population. So forcing his hand, Erdoğan may bring into existence an explosive situation over this issue.

The second form Erdoğan’s ambition takes is his wish to see Turkey at the head of the Islamic world and himself assuming de facto leadership of a community of (preferably Sunni) nations in the Middle East and North Africa, if only as a first step towards the unification of the umma. He has donned himself, through his henchmen, the title of “Rais” (slightly differently spelled in its Turkish version as “Reis”), which means “Chief” or “Leader”. It is important to realise that the last time someone was called “Rais” in the Middle East was when Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egytpian leader immensely popular with the Middle Eastern masses, was at the helm of a movement that stood for the renaissance of the Arab-Muslim world.

All these ambitious projects make Erdoğan himself a ticking bomb for Turkey. More and more he is becoming the leader blindly followed by a wing of the Turkish bourgeoisie as well as a whole section of the masses at large and representing a scourge for the other. Turkey may have to pay a heavy price for his divisiveness and his ambitions.

All this points to the prospect of spasmodic development of the kind we have seen in the stunning change from the June elections to the November elections. Turkey is bracing for further and deeper comvulsions.

Sungur Savran is a Turkish journalist.

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