Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: UNAOC/CC
Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: UNAOC/CC

Berkay Kartav

In the presidential run-off election on 28 May, the incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected as Turkey’s president, beating his opponent from the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu by less than three million votes in a very narrow election victory.

The results show that Turkey remains a highly polarised country, with almost half of the country voting for Erdogan, and the other half voting against him.

This election, and also the parliamentary election held on 14 May, took place amid an historic cost-of-living crisis, where inflation is predicted to be over 120%, and following two devastating earthquakes which struck Turkey earlier in the year, killing over 50,000 people and displacing millions of people from their homes.

The parliamentary election was a breakthrough for the right-wing, as Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) electoral alliance gained an overall majority. Even though the self-proclaimed social democratic CHP increased its number of seats compared to the previous election, 39 of these seats were allocated to the right-wing parties in CHP’s electoral coalition, the Nation Alliance. This means that the majority of the Turkish parliament will be made up of right-wing and far-right parties.

The results, inevitably, will temporarily have a demoralising effect on millions of working-class and young people who desperately wanted Erdogan to go, and hoped that a new government would bring an end to the economic crisis. They are fed up with the rapidly deteriorating living standards, attacks on democratic rights, and the vile language used by Erdogan and other leading AKP members.

Many of the people who voted against Erdogan will now be asking why, after all the problems exacerbated by Erdogan’s rule, does he manage to win, and why the opposition failed to oust him, once again.

There is no doubt that Erdogan, having ruled Turkey for two decades and strengthened his grip over the Turkish state machine and bureaucracy, used all the resources at his disposal to protect his electoral base. Massive amounts of money and resources were spent to prop up his campaign, and the majority of the media is under his control.

Populist policies, including a 40% wage increase for civil servants, early retirement for some workers and free gas for every household for a month, as well as other benefits, helped alleviate some of the effects of the economic crisis faced by many Erdogan supporters, especially in rural areas where the crisis is less acute compared to big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara.

Despite the widening gap between the rich and the poor over the last 20 years, the AKP is still very well organised in working-class neighbourhoods through networks of patronage. This is not only the case during the election period but also outside this period, in order to shore up its social base.

By posing as a Turkish nationalist, he resorted to divide-and-rule tactics and spurred on anti-Kurdish sentiments, while continuing to repress Kurdish people during the election campaign. He especially targeted the jailed ex-leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selehattin Demirtas, many times in his speeches. After the second-round elections, he reiterated that Demirtas will never be released from prison as long as he is in charge.

Erdogan also posed himself as a ‘world leader’ as Turkey is perceived to have an independent foreign policy under Erdogan’s rule. This was also combined with homophobic and sexist language.

‘United’ opposition

The main election campaign against Erdogan was led by the CHP. They led the Nation Alliance electoral coalition and invited five right-wing parties, including the parties formed by a former prime minister and a finance minister who both served under Erdogan’s rule.

Clearly, cooperating with AKP-lite parties failed to win significant votes for Kilicdaroglu or the CHP. What brought these different parties together was their common motivation to defend the interests of big business against the increasingly erratic and unpredictable rule of Erdogan.

Simply put, their whole electoral strategy was based on saying ‘we are not Erdogan’ and they hoped to win support from disgruntled layers in the society. The main pledges of this alliance was to return to parliamentary democracy and meritocracy in government institutions.

This was combined with an overly optimistic campaign that Erdogan would lose these elections, and enormous pressure was put on all other forces, in particular left forces, not to stand in the presidential (and even in the parliamentary elections).

After failing to secure enough votes in the first round, the Nation Alliance took an even more right-wing turn and tried to exploit the anti-immigration sentiments in Turkey, a country that hosts the world’s biggest refugee population. The main message of Kilicdaroglu was to deport all migrants from Turkey. It even made a pact with a far-right populist, Umit Ozdag, with the hope that this would secure an election victory in the second round. This politician was spreading rumours about refugees in the aftermath of the earthquake while teams were still trying to rescue people from the rubble.

There has been much debate on why the CHP has lost again. Some argue that it put forward the wrong candidate in the presidential elections. However, it was not an issue of who was standing but on what programme and with what strategy. The Nation Alliance failed to put forward a convincing programme that could potentially get support from people who voted for Erdogan. Economic issues and the ongoing problems in the earthquake-hit areas, in the main, were left out in their campaigns.

Socialist programme needed

This election was an opportunity for left-wing parties, including those who already have seats in the parliament, and those who do not, to enthuse the working class and young people by raising a socialist programme – with demands on pay, housing, energy bills and food prices – and sinking roots in working-class areas.

The biggest left-wing alliance in this election was the Labour and Freedom alliance, which is made up of the pro-Kurdish HDP and the newly formed Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP). While the HDP’s vote share has slightly decreased, TIP won almost a million votes and gained four seats in the first elections in which they stood under their own name.

The top-down approach of the leadership of the HDP and the Party of Greens and Left Future (YSP), their uncritical support for the main pro-capitalist opposition candidate, and the right-wing shift in their programme all led to less enthusiastic support for the HDP. The HDP and the YSP programmes do not go beyond simply calling for economic justice and a democratic republic.

After the elections, the former, jailed leader of the HDP, Demirtas, correctly criticised the current leadership for not standing in the first round of presidential elections and for the badly organised election campaign.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) argued that there had to be discussions on the left for there to be an independent working-class stand on a socialist programme in the presidential elections.

In our pre-election article we said: “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.”

However, without any democratic discussion within the workers’ movement, the leaderships of the HDP and the TIP have succumbed to the lesser-evilism mood in society. In the case of the TIP, not only did it gave uncritical support for Kilicdaroglu while he was pledging to deport all migrants in Turkey, it actively campaigned for him.

Had it maintained an independent socialist position, it could have benefited from the anger that developed among CHP supporters after the elections and won them over to socialist ideas. Instead, they simply reflected the existing mood.

Despite these important ideological and strategic mistakes, it is positive that the TIP was able to, albeit in a limited way, popularise socialist ideas among a new generation. But unless it puts forward a rounded-out socialist programme and organises and builds in working-class districts, they too could lose their popularity quickly.

It was also positive that the HDP, the TIP and other left-wing organisations such as the Labour Party (EMEP) were able to come together, despite the occasional sectarian remarks by some in the alliance. Steps must be taken to strengthen and extend the Labour and Freedom Alliance and democratic discussions need to be organised with mass participation from the rank-and-file about the structure of the alliance and the programme it will need raise in this period.

The CWI would argue that such an alliance should be transformed into a genuine left front, with a federal structure and a group for workers who do not have any political affiliations, and boldly raise class demands on pay, housing, democratic rights and so on, as well as raising demands on socialist nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers’ control and management. Such a front should also raise democratic demands, in a transitional way.

Not a stable government

Far from signalling a return to a stable equilibrium, Erdogan’s victory will likely deepen the crisis for Turkish capitalism and it will not mean any improvement in the living standards for the working class.

Foreign currency reserves have been severely depleted to prop up the Turkish lira and finance the current account deficits. The cost to insure defaults has gone up. After the elections, the Turkish currency depreciated further. One Turkish lira is now worth around US$21. 

Even though Erdogan appointed Mehmet Simsek, a former finance minister who is well regarded by foreign investors, as the new finance minister to restore the investors’ trust in the Turkish economy, the economic troubles will continue. Simsek pledges to return to ‘rational’ orthodox economic policies. What he means is that he is going to implement austerity and further attacks on the working class, including the pensioners. 

The new government will also be likely to stoke the national question. The HDP entered these elections under massive state repression, while their democratically elected mayors and politicians have been debarred from office or even imprisoned. Given the predominance of right-wing and far-right parties in the Turkish parliament, there will be questioning amongst the Kurdish people and within the Kurdish movement about what programme and strategy is needed to fight for democratic rights.

The left needs to defend the national and democratic rights of the Kurds, including the right to self-determination. The fight for democratic rights, moreover, must be combined with the fight for socialism.

Although there are still low levels of industrial struggles, at some stage the working class in Turkey – with its rich traditions of struggle and socialism – will stamp its authority on these events. A vital task in this period is rebuilding the organisations of the working class, including the trade unions, in the face of further attacks, and to politically arm the working class.

It is on the basis of an independent working-class movement, with a socialist programme, that we can get rid of the likes of Erdogan and begin to transform society along socialist lines, to transform the living standards of the majority.