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Turkish Elections and After

The July 2007 elections ended with results beyond the expectations of most observers.  We will watch for possible coming earthquakes.

To explain the AKP’s election victory, in addition to the AKP’s own tactics and policies, exogenous factors should be taken into consideration.  These include the large vacuum at the centre right and center left of Turkish politics resulting from the basic disabilities of the dominant Turkish political structure.  The AKP’s success is substantially due to this vacuum created at the center of Turkish politics and the inabilities of the party’s rivals, which means that such a level of election support may not be sustained in a different conjuncture.

Aside from receiving unquestionable and efficient support from international capital, the US administration, the EU, and media monopolies, as well as benefiting from the aforementioned political vacuum, what has the AKP actually accomplished?  Above all, the AKP succeeded in responding to the “fears of disorder and economic and political instability which might arise from internal tensions and conflicts” of the mass of the people, who never feel themselves secure and are always in fear of further deterioration of their material social conditions: i.e. the poor, a large section of the middle classes, shopkeepers, and the majority of Kurdish people.

AKP, at the beginning of this year, actually achieved a representative position in terms of society’s political common sense just after the assassination of Hrant Dink, mainly because of the political weakness of the Turkish left.  The army’s declaration (the so-called e-coup d’etat) in April, thanks to its preferred tactic of tension about the presidential elections, helped AKP, which was just then beginning to lose this position as representative of the general common sense.  During this process, Erdogan managed to re-grasp that representative position and started his attack against the other party: i.e. the nationalists’ front headed by the army.

Erdogan has shown a certain skill in managing stagnant political conditions thanks to his “powerful” advisors, though he always makes mistakes in chaotic and agitated conditions.  Therefore, it is a bit strange that the nationalist wing, which had carried on a severe tactic of tension sending masses into the streets, did not choose to make any big noise during the last month of the election campaign.  Some of the reasons for this might be the narrow-mindedness of nationalist politics itself: their elitist orientation in terms of real problems of the vast majority of the people; their single-minded, semi-paranoiac attitudes; strict sectarianism of the leader (Deniz Baykal) of the so-called social democratic party (Republican People’s Party) which has been for some time the main channel for the official “secularist-nationalist” reactions of the upper middle classes; Baykal’s great effort to distance his party from the left along with his tactics of opening up to the right; etc.  All these might explain the change in political position of the nationalist wing from agitation to stagnation.

However, in addition to these reasons, perhaps we should also look at the two-and-a half-hours-long unpublicized meeting between Prime Minister Erdogan and General Yasar Buyukanit, Chief of the General Staff, in Dolmabahce just before the elections.  It is understood that during that meeting a consensus was reached between the two about a series of issues directly related to the elections.  It seems that there was agreement on a framework in which their differences could be expressed within “reasonable limits” about the position of Turkey in regard to Northern Iraq; that the presidential elections system and the anticipated referenda for it will not be put under too much pressure; that no open operations will be organized against the secret nationalist junta organizations within and outside the army, about which the Chief of the General Staff too has certain concerns.  After this meeting, the Turkish General Staff did not take any further steps beyond engaging in some polemics about Northern Iraq and agitating the Kurdish question a little with the help of its appeals for massive participation in the “demonstrations against terror” (which followed the nationalist rallies, on a much smaller scale).  This last was obviously aimed to help the MHP (the fascist, racist Nationalist Movement Party) reach the minimum ten percent of the votes needed to enter the parliament.  However this second series of demonstrations, while bolstering the MHP and agitating the Kurdish question, seems only to have contributed to the dissolution of the tense atmosphere that was created by the April nationalist mass demonstrations while pushing a large part of the Kurdish masses behind the AKP.  In short, in this process, the army as the main engine of nationalism was unable to maintain a united and consistent position.  The General Staff entered into some partial compromises and indeed at some point froze the tactic of tension that it had previously accelerated.

Putting these developments together, let us recall the provocative discussions concerning Turkey carried out at the Hudson Institute some two months ago and revealed by some sources close to the US administration.  Is it not unreasonable to see a connection with the consensus between Erdogan and Buyukanit, reached during the peak of tension just after the operations against the nationalist junta organizations and the US administration’s intervention, and the ensuing total stagnation of the nationalist offensive?

The historical lesson that should be drawn from this by those pro-army “nationalists” on the left is that, as was already seen in all Turkish coup d’états and especially just after the 12 March 1971 coup famous for its various leftist-rightist intra-junta games, it is never possible to produce patriotic politics based on relations with, and expectations for, such an Americanized institution.  This is especially so today given the realities of our age and the global stakes at issue in the Middle East.  The nationalist force today is one part ravings of the disintegrating middle classes and the other the reactions of ordinary people against religious fundamentalism, but it is now in large part ideologically merged with reactionary-racist concerns about the “internal conflicts and divisions.”  Such a political position cannot be led and transformed towards progressive results.  Rather the inevitable point that such a political position will reach is to take a place in a wing of the nationalist forces, to adopt a racist position, and to be a dish on the bargaining table of the ruling forces.

When the election results are evaluated together with the tensions in the Middle East which are accelerating along with US pressures, there are two alternatives left for the army in the middle run: the first is to take a defensive position for a while and wait for a new big chance to come; and the second is to accept a real change of course (which can also be seen as accepting an internal liquidation) as a result of US pressures and of the owner-of-the-state pragmatism of the army.  Until now the general tactic of the Turkish General Staff has been to merge these two and to choose a route according to the strength of US pressures.  The only development that can change this would be a real shift in the axis of US politics.

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Looking at the comprehensive picture that the elections put in front of us, we have to emphasize two critical points for the near future.  First, as MHP has now become the rising center of nationalism, the so-called social democratic party will lose ground and the merger of nationalism with right-wing racism will accelerate.

Second, neo-liberalism, which was the rising hegemonic ideology during the 1980-90s but which largely lost its ideological power worldwide after 1999 (and in our country especially after the 2001 crises), was able to partially repair itself during the July 2007 elections with the help of “identity politics” and once more consolidated a strong position. The main representative of the neo-liberal ideology and program in Turkey, AKP, grasped a representative commonsense position in-between the Turkish and Kurdish nationalisms, managing this by creating a feeling that reasonable identity recognition would be granted to Kurds and by giving hope to the Kurdish bourgeoisie that it could enjoy a rent-sharing position if it is articulated with US policies.  Together with its Islamist identity against secularism, it convinced the Islamist masses that a moderate neo-liberal Islamist process can weaken and change the official secularist regime.  And it could even convince permanently depressed left identities that only the AKP would give them a chance to survive.  Thus, community formations at all social levels and in all social spheres were encouraged, and communities were given a chance to survive as a way of extending its own (and indeed the World Bank’s) brutal neo-liberal politics in the name of “social policy.”  As the sum total of all these, AKP now plays the role of a “freedom-lover” and even “equality-lover” party against the authoritarian ideological-political character of its nationalist rival, and it can hide the vacuums created by neo-liberalism with its peculiar identity politics.

These developments imply an important result for the left: with the defeat of the so-called social democratic nationalism, liberalism, once more and this time in a new neo-liberal framework, will act to repair its hegemony among some sections of the left, social democrats, and Kurdish people.

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When we evaluate the election results from the viewpoint of the Kurdish movement, first, it must be said that Kurds succeeded in entering parliament in a number sufficient to enable them to have an official political group.  This opportunity, if wisely used, can enable a new center of initiative to be created in Kurdish politics.  A Turkish-Kurdish movement can gain some strength in the Middle East and in the international arena.

Of course it should not be forgotten that votes for independent Kurdish candidates largely decreased in the Kurdish provinces of the East and densely Kurdish populated provinces of West Anatolia, and AKP undoubtedly became the only party taking the majority of Kurdish votes.  The rise of AKP among Kurds will bring this party to a position where it no longer can avoid the Kurdish question.  To be sure, Erdogan should not be expected to take steps for any “solution” in this area, unless he receives the strongest of guarantees from the US.

On the other hand, a crossroad will be reached where either the disintegration of PKK and the legal Kurdish movement would accelerate or a more positive direction would develop.  The decisive factor will be how the Kurdish legal party, in terms of its relationship with the left opposition, takes a position against the neoliberal policies of AKP.  It is possible that PKK would initiate a ceasefire because of the new conditions (unless, of course, Turkey were to enter into Northern Iraq).  But it should always be remembered that the US, at a critical threshold in Iraq and in the entire Middle East, will be a very influential factor over the development of the Kurdish question in Turkey.  In the coming months, the most critical element will be the US-Turkey-Iraq negotiations around the Kirkuk referendum and Northern Iraq.  AKP politics about the Kurdish issue should be expected to take its shape accordingly.

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Meanwhile it is now evident that the so-called social democratic party leadership will not resign after its election defeat and there will be a long and deep fight between the different left-right fractions within both this party and the nationalist movement.

Left explorations and initiatives for alternative projects will accelerate in this atmosphere and various centers will try to gain strength and position, including the new “social democratic” centers supported by the fractions of monopoly capital and media monopolies against the traditional sectarian leadership.  A prominent “social democratic” figure who last year was the colonialist administrator-governor of Afghanistan (Hikmet Cetin) on behalf of NATO is included in this game now, with a heavy pro-liberal, pro-US emphasis.  It seems that the ruling classes aim to have a social democratic alternative as a hedge against any possibility of AKP’s weakening or going out of control. 

Left liberalism, which during the election process was represented by left independent candidates and which even considered the working class as a part of its own identity politics, of course will try to be part of these initiatives, including the only non-Kurdish left candidate who won a seat in the parliament.  How the Kurdish deputies will merge nationalism with left liberalism, which positions they will take against AKP’s neoliberal policies and US Middle East policies, and how they will merge this with a Kurdish nationalist-liberal framework all remain to be seen.

There is no strong possibility that in the coming few months the presidential elections will again turn into a major crisis.  However, in a period when economy will be under much more pressure, AKP will start implementing a new course of neo-liberal assaults more recklessly and this time introduce much delayed privatizations in energy production and distribution and the remaining parts of the health, social security, and public system “reforms.”  These will accelerate social problems, and at least partially weaken identity politics patches over neo-liberal destruction, and create stronger pressure to fill the giant vacuum in the sphere of social left opposition.

The need for an independent and revolutionary left will become a much more burning issue in the coming days.  At this point, in order to overcome the hopelessness and confusion among the left, ideological clarity as well as practical militancy will be more important than ever.  In order to prevent the left from being taken entirely under the influence of a new neo-liberal wave, just as happened during the 1990s, a vivid line of ideological, political, and social struggle should be taken.

Under our concrete political and social conditions, the path of a real left renovation can be built only by organizing, uniting, and politicizing the mass struggles related to poor and working people’s basic social rights against neo-liberalism with a revolutionary perspective.  This is not mere agitation but a realistic political judgment and commitment that can determine the future of a left in search of various alternatives.  One of the important problems for this line is to concretely shape this political perspective along the realities of AKP’s assault program and to make it achieve political and organizational richness.  Thus it is time for ideological and political clarification in order to overcome the confusion among the left by militant practice, step by step.


Cigdem Cidamli is a co-editor of the Turkish edition of Monthly Review.



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