Turkey: historic breakthrough for left

Turkey: historic breakthrough for left

AKP government suffers big defeat

Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI Turkey) reporters and Michael Gehmacher (CWI Austria)

Turkey’s political landscape was shaken on 7 June. On election night, the feeling of left and Kurdish activists mirrored that of the Gezi Park movement in the summer of 2013. The ruling right-wing, conservative Islamist AKP suffered a bigger blow than polls predicted, losing 2.6 million votes and 69 MPs, compared to the last elections.

The left, pro-Kurdish Democratic Party of the People (HDP) has won 13% of the votes, meeting the 10% needed to enter Parliament. The threshold is an anti-democratic measure, implemented in the wake of the 1980 military coup, precisely to prevent Kurdish parties achieving Parliamentary representation.

In Kurdish regions, spontaneous rallies and celebrations took place to welcome the HDP’s electoral breakthrough as for the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party has made it into parliament. Many female HDP activists were elected too, which is symbolic given the traditional dominance of Turkish politics by old, right wing men.

Many of the 80 new HDP members of Parliament belong to ethnic, social or religious minorities. Their presence in the Turkish parliament is a blow to the nationalist reactionary elite, as was the presence of the first openly gay parliamentary candidate in the history of the Turkish Republic.

Polarised election

The election was also polarised, with gains for the far-right MHP, whose vote rose by 3% to 16%. The election was shaken by outbursts of violence, especially against the HDP, with many physical attacks on HDP offices and activists across the country.

The MHP whipped up nationalism, blaming the AKP as “traitors” because of the peace process between the government and the Kurdish movement. But the MHP also played a social populist card.

They argued for a rise in the minimum wage, a reduction of fuel taxes and an end to the sackings in the state sector. This demonstrates that social issues have become more important, because of the problems in the Turkish economy and the fear of job losses.

The social and economic situation was the backdrop to this election. Many Turkish people believed that their living standards improved during the years of the AKP government. This is one of the main reasons why a section of the poor has continued to vote for this party.

However, this is changing, with a deteriorating economic situation over the last two years, rising unemployment and inflation and growing difficulties for millions of working class families. This, coupled with the general sharpening of attacks on democratic rights and a reinforcement of the regime’s attack on democracy has alienated a whole layer of long-standing AKP voters and supporters.

For the left and those fighting for a better society, the HDP’s remarkable electoral success opens a window of political opportunities with the HDP’s popularity higher than ever.

The HDP is a coalition of left organisations and individuals and recently the party leadership has managed to engage many activists from different social and political movements, such as the LGBT movement and environmental campaigners.

The Kurdish BDP (political arm of the banned PKK) remains the dominating force inside the party. But the latter has started to attract an increasing number of Turkish voters who have drawn the conclusion that the Erdogan-led AKP and the main opposition party, the CHP, do not provide a favourable alternative. The vast majority of HDP voters are workers and young people, many radicalised by the important struggles of workers and youth in the last few years to demand better working conditions and democratic rights. Many activists consider themselves socialist.

The HDP stands for a better healthcare system, stronger state-supported education, a rise in the minimum wage and the shortening of the working week to 35 hours. Every other party demanded much less, but the fact that the HDP brought these social issues into the public debate forced the other parties to respond.

‘Radical Democracy’

Overall, HDP leaders put more emphasis on vague ideas such as ‘radical democracy’, ‘great humanity’ as well as campaigning for the rights of national minorities and LGBT people. They also tried to exploit the religious feeling of some of the population. Figen Yüksegdag, co-leader of the HDP, in one of her final campaign speeches spoke about the corruption of AKP’s leaders, and argued that corruption is an “insult to Islam”.

The social and political composition of the HDP is far from homogeneous meaning there is no clear direction in the leadership. Can the HDP become a new workers’ party, or will it turn into a liberal left party, like for example the Greens in most of Europe?

Worldwide, the crisis of capitalism is getting worse, and Turkey is no exception with workers and youth facing attacks.

To defend democratic rights and fight for social improvements, a militant party rooted in the working class is needed, a party that has strong links with trade unions and social movements and a party that uses parliament as a platform to defend workers’ in struggle.

If the MPs of the HDP use the first parliamentary session to launch a bold campaign to secure their demands, then they could gain a lot of support from workers and youth around the country. It would also expose the traditional “Kemalist” CHP as well as the far right MHP.

Workers’ party

A new left workers’ party standing for workers’ rights and for social change would have widespread support in Turkey. Tens of thousands of workers and youth are looking to the HDP to fulfil this role.

Yet many Turkish workers are still hostile towards the HDP. Some of them see the HDP as a manoeuvre by the PKK, a party dominated by the old PKK cadres and where the important decisions involve the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. This is why the HDP needs democratic and transparent structures. It is especially important that workers and youth see how decisions are made and there is no ‘hidden PKK-agenda’.

Linking Kurdish and Turkish workers is a key task for the future of the workers’ movement in Turkey. The HDP, taking into account its election success, can make important steps in that direction. By taking up social issues, every strike and workers’ struggle and using their position in the media and in Parliament, the HDP could become a vehicle for the whole working class.

Positively, the HDP has ruled out any coalition with the AKP from the outset but should also exclude any coalition with other capitalist parties. Any new government will make cuts and carry out right-wing policies. So rather than calling all parties to be ‘responsible’ and to contribute to political stability, the HDP leadership should prepare for the coming resistance. It could, for example, use its successful campaign and newly acquired position to call for mass meetings, inviting workers, young people and social campaigners to discuss how to take the struggle forward.

The experience of new left formations around the world shows that after initial electoral success, there is a danger that such parties swing to the right. To prevent this from happening, a cohesive political programme, and democratic structures at all levels combined with a mass active membership needs to be developed.

Defending a socialist orientation for the HDP, based on support for mass working class action, and for the nationalisation of the banks and big industries, will be a key task of activists in the coming period.

Developing grassroots connections with social and trade union movements will also be crucial to ensure this formation does not end up in a mire of political compromises, coalitions with pro-capitalist forces, and cuts.