The Turkish Crisis, the Generals, and the Left

For the last several months Turkey has been immersed in a major political crisis as various sections of the Turkish ruling classes openly feud.  It has pitted the ruling, Islamic-influenced AKP government against sections of the Turkish military, political, and judicial elites.  It is also dispute over the direction of Turkish economic restructuring as well as control over key institutions.  As these analyses were being written, the Turkish Constitutional Court voted by a close margin on July 30 not to ban the AKP as a threat to the secular constitutional status of the Turkish Republic and only slash its state funding.  The roots of the conflict, however, go much deeper than the immediate events of recent months.  The political fissures opened up by the clash between sections of the ruling class have also seen elements of the Turkish Left re-energized.  Important debates in the Turkish Left have emerged over the nature and potential directions of the crisis.  Here are presented contributions to this debate by Sungur Savran and Ertugrul Kürkçü, two of Turkey’s leading socialist intellectuals and activists. — Socialist Project

Turkey is being convulsed by the successive waves of arrest of members of a certain wing of the Turkish Gladio (the “Kontrgerilla” in Turkish) and of putschist generals who plotted against the semi-Islamist AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi — Justice and Development Party) government in 2003 and 2004.  The Kontrgerilla is responsible for innumerable assassinations and destabilization operations against the workers’ movement and the Left in the 1970s and the Kurdish movement since the 1990s.  The indictment of the case against the wing of the Kontrgerilla called Ergenekon (after a Central Asian Turkish epic), submitted on 14 July and admitted by the court on 25 July, might seem superficially to be a victory for the forces of the working class and the oppressed in Turkey.  Unfortunately the truth is more complicated and nuanced.

This case has come on the agenda not under the pressure of the mass movement and the Left, but as a product of the long drawn-out struggle between two wings of the ruling classes.  This is what some of us have been calling for the last two years “the political civil war of the bourgeoisie” — a struggle to death between, on the one hand, the secular-Westernist dominant wing of the bourgeoisie, with the armed forces acting as the spearhead, and the more recently formed fraction of finance capital having a more Islamist orientation, represented by the partially reformed government party, the AKP, on the other.  The armed forces intervened in April 2007 through an internet pronunciamiento, probably the first ever e-intervention in history, to stop a leader of the AKP from being elected president.  The AKP responded by organizing snap elections, which it won by a landslide victory in July 2007 with 46% of the popular vote.

This civil war has developed through a maze of political and legal battles to finally result in a case pending at the Constitutional Court for the closing down of the AKP, for allegedly attempting to bring Sharia rule to Turkey.  The armed forces has been waiting in the shadows since the defeat it suffered in the elections, but documents recently leaked to the press, which the army was unable to deny, amply prove that this is purely tactical and that it had carefully planned to charge the judiciary with the task of putting the AKP out of the game.  The AKP, in control of the police and with some influence on public prosecutors through the Ministry of Justice, has responded in kind through this recent case against the Kontrgerilla and the putschist generals of the 2003-04 period.  It is this internecine war of the bourgeoisie that has led to the coming out into daylight of the most heinous and hideous aspects of the existing state system.

These facts definitely restrict the scope of the court case.  The indictment limits itself to acts of sabotage and assassination relating to the destabilization of the AKP government and conveniently ignores the atrocious attacks on the Kurdish people that have been going on for more than a decade and, for that matter, the operations targeting the workers’ movement in the more distant past.  Furthermore, it hastens to pay respect to the army as an institution, stating clearly and unequivocally that neither the army nor intelligence services have ever had anything to do with the mischief done by Ergenekon, despite the fact that evidence gathered over the decades clearly demonstrates the contrary.  Finally, in a long-winded text of 2,500 pages, it dilutes the gravity of the serious allegations it brings forward with irrelevant bombastic ‘evidence’ and ingenuous political analysis, both weaknesses amply exploited by the broad front of defenders of the putschists.  Nonetheless, a breach has been opened up and it is up to the forces of the Left and of the working class, in alliance with the Kurdish movement, to see to it that the investigation is carried out to the very end to bring everyone, and first and foremost those politically responsible, to justice.  Unfortunately, the Left and the workers’ movement seem hardly prepared to live up to this task.

The Left in Disarray

We have been insisting for years now that the two main political lines adopted by the Left in Turkey, each line representing the orientation of a multitude of parties and groups, are positively harmful for class struggle and the fight of the oppressed Kurdish people.  One line, what we have called the left-liberal view, expects salvation from the European Union (EU) and therefore tails any ruling party that displays a commitment to Turkish accession to the EU.  At present, this attitude manifests itself in sympathy for the AKP, and the bold move by this party in prosecuting those who conspired against it provides an excuse for backing this party, an enemy of the working class if there be any.  This line is adopted by the Kurdish movement as well and also those Turkish socialist parties that try to build their fortunes on the success of the Kurdish movement.  The other line is even more shameful.  Against the religious reaction represented by the AKP, it supports the Turkish military, the very institution that, through the ferocious military dictatorship of the early 1980s, robbed the vibrant workers’ movement of the 1960s and the 1970s of all its gains.  In relation to the latest episode, this wing has simply stood aside so as not to play into the hands of the AKP or, for some, has even outright come to the defense of the murderers and the putschists!  This is similar to the posture of the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi — The Republican People’s Party), the self-styled social democratic party, whose leader has descended so far as to take upon himself the dubious honor of calling himself the ‘lawyer of Ergenekon’!

We believe that in the context of the political civil war of the bourgeoisie the Left should fight resolutely for the political independence of the working class.  The Left should gather all its forces to wage a total attack on the Kontrgerilla, without any limitations whatsoever, but should also warn the workers’ movement and the Left against capitulation to either wing of the bourgeoisie.

Turkey will again be shaken in the coming days with the decision of the Constitutional Court in the case on the banning of the government party.  The only way out of the dead end in which the civil war of the bourgeoisie has put the country, and the balance of organized forces on the Left, lies in forming a fighting front around class-struggle trade unions.  After a long slumber, the Turkish working class has, for the last year or so, awakened to struggle.  Strikes have mushroomed, a mass movement took off against the government’s attack on the health and pension systems in March of this year, and May Day became the scene of a powerful struggle between the workers’ movement and the government.  This fighting spirit has led to a differentiation within the union movement and even the union bureaucracy itself.

Some of us have been concretely campaigning for a fighting unity, from the top and from the bottom, between class-struggle unions irrespective of which confederation they belong to.  Only this can provide a solution to the disarray of the Left and bring it out in a common struggle against both wings of the bourgeoisie.  And only on this basis can a fighting alliance be formed between two moving forces, the working class and the oppressed Kurds.  A real ‘third front,’ not watered down to become a walking aid to AKP as was the left electoral front formed in the last elections, is the only solution to the impasse Turkey finds itself in.

Turkey’s recent politics appears to revolve around two court cases.  In the one case, the ruling AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – Justice and Development Party) stands before the bar in order to defend itself in the Constitutional Court closure case against charges by the Head Prosecutor of the Turkish Republic of “having become a focus of fundamentalist Islamist threat against the secular republic.”  In the other, the defendants are headed up by former army commanders, who during duty may have mobilized the power they exercised within the state security and intelligence services for crushing the ruling Islamist-rooted AKP government.  The complex web, built up under the leadership of a retired four-star general, comprises a vast array of figures from Turkey’s broad political spectrum including covert killers, fanatic ultra-nationalist agitators, former-Maoist political figures, solemn academics, retired paramilitaries, and others.

Struggle for Power

The involvement of courts, judges, and prosecutors in the ongoing strife may surprise an onlooker who is unfamiliar with the particularities of Turkey’s political background.  What unfolds before our eyes is not simply a legal process as such, yet a war for power ‘pursued by other means.’  Seen through the eyes of European or U.S. media, Turkey appears to be torn apart between secularists and Islamists.  But this ideological approach misses the real nature of the ongoing strife in the country: the warring parties’ programs are related to the restructuring of Turkey’s socio-economic relation in a globalized world economy, rather than particular worldviews toward secularism or Islam, though the latter has indeed had a considerable impact on the course of the conflict.

In the one camp stands a contradictory alliance of Turkey’s big capitalist class — who strive to ascend to a higher level in competition in the global market through membership in the European Union (EU) — and the ‘Anatolian Tigers.’  The Anatolian group is made up of middle-scale businesses generally owned by the conservative local bourgeoisie of central Turkey of an Islamic background.  They have been competing in the global market since the 1980s when Turkey adopted export-oriented development strategies to replace the statist and import-substitution approach of the previous two decades.  The ruling AKP has had an eye to further influence in the Middle East as a NATO member with a ‘strategic alliance’ with Washington, contrary to neo-conservative paranoia of Turkey adopting the ‘Taliban model.’  In the last six years in government, it has been able to coalesce with the interests of the big capital from its Islamist power base, although there have also been at times fierce frictions between the allies.

In the other camp is a complex political and social network of Turkey’s bureaucratic and military elites in alliance with certain sections of the bourgeoisie whose domestic interests are endangered by the influx of international finance capital in the Turkish markets.  They derive their power from their manipulative capacity over Turkey’s powerful state apparatuses — from the military to judiciary, from the academy to administrative bureaucracy — rather than from their role in social production.  The recent crackdown on the secret special organization ‘Ergenekon,’ however, has apparently inflicted a heavy blow on the most criminal elements of this network.  This group, with its extensive network across Turkey among staunch secularist-republicans, and with its control over the military-industrial complex, still represents an attractive — even if irrational from the standpoint of globalization — perspective particularly among white-collar occupations, who comprise the urban base of Turkey’s political landscape.  They have argued for a future for Turkish capitalism in Eurasia — the giant political-geographical space between Russia and China.  The influential generals who have inspired this new direction had already in 2002 stated that “instead of bidding for membership in the unreliable EU, Turkey should turn towards cooperation with Russia and Iran.”  The following years would prove that these were more than mere words.

Between November 2002 (the first year of the pro-Islamist AKP in power) and July 2007 (the general elections which gained the AKP an even broader victory for power in the parliament), a huge counter-current against Turkey’s EU membership bid and against Turkey’s military alliance with the U.S. swept across the country.  The movement, in spite of its ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric, said very little against Turkey’s NATO membership.  It mainly targeted democratic reforms for freedom of speech and organization, broader rights for Turkey’s Kurds and non-Muslim minorities (believing that these made Turkey more vulnerable to Western influences and open to Islamic fundamentalism) and agitated against a peaceful solution in Cyprus for the fear of what might result from the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the divided island.  On the eve of the July 22, 2007 general elections, when they seemed to have the full backing of Turkey’s armed forces, the national and international media image of the ‘Eurasian’ camp (labeled as ‘secularists’) was so bright and powerful that political analysts could not have predicted their present collapse.  Indeed, the media they control or influence — including TV channels, dailies, magazines — and the main opposition CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – The Republican People’s Party) have converged around the opinion that the defeat is caused by AKP-backed persecution of the “patriots” through “slanders” and “false accusations.”

A more coolheaded analysis, however, shows that their initial rise and dramatic collapse was directly related to a major shift in the balance of power, particularly with the political stand of the armed forces high command.  The unexpected consensus reached between the present Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on May 5, 2007 marked the beginning of the withdrawal of the support of the armed forces for the ‘Eurasianists.’

In spite of baseless arguments by the liberal supporters of the AKP, the Turkish armed forces’ interventions in daily political life have not stemmed from an anti-EU reflex inherent in the army mentality.  It has stemmed from their ‘perception of threat’ that Turkey’s territorial integrity is at risk as long as Iraq’s prospective dismemberment remains on the agenda in the aftermath of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

EU Membership: A National Security Policy Principle

Indeed, the National Security Policy Document — a ‘top secret’ strategy document jointly drafted by the government and the armed forces which was leaked to the press in 1997 — posed, among others, several strategic aims: Turkey’s westward orientation should not be modified by any means; Turkey’s bid for full EU membership in the EU should be kept (although the negative attitudes of some EU countries should not be underestimated); and efforts directed at integrating Turkey into the world market, including via privatization of state assets, should be increased.  This has framed Turkish state policy before and after the AKP government came to power.

In spite of Turkey’s favorable strategic approach towards economic integration with global capitalism, Ankara-Washington relations worsened over this period, as the U.S. occupation reinforced the drive toward Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.  Due to the fragility of Iraq’s territorial control of its borders, the Turkish military perceived a growing threat from the prospect of Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq.  For the Turkish military and ruling classes, this was a negative example for Turkey’s own 12 million Kurds.  The U.S. presence in Iraq, Ankara’s military elite believed, also gave the insurgent guerrilla PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan — Kurdistan Workers’ Party) a relatively greater sphere of action on the other side of Turkey-Iraq border.

Having missed the ‘chance’ to enter into Iraqi territory as part of ‘Allied Forces’ after a ‘no’ vote in the Turkish Parliament in 2002, the Turkish military continued its de facto military presence in Northern Iraq to prevent the area from becoming a safe haven for the insurgent Kurdish guerrillas.  Yet, the breaking point was reached when Turkish ‘special forces’ were embarrassingly arrested by the local U.S. occupation forces in their bases in Suleimania.  Turkey was forced to accept a U.S. ban on its covert actions against the Kurds of Iraq and the insurgent Kurdish guerrilla PKK.

The Turkish army responded to the ban from its ‘greatest ally’ with a mobilization of its political influence against the U.S. interests in Turkey.  From 2002 to 2007, an anti-American and anti-Kurd ‘nationalist’ psychology and political effort swept across the country.  Turkey’s NATO-trained generals praised “the popular support for the indivisible unity of Turkish Republic.”

The campaign peaked in 2007 when Turkish Armed Forces regained their right to launch cross-border air and land force operations inside Iraqi territory against PKK guerrillas with intelligence support from the U.S. occupation forces.  With their security position regained and Washington’s recognition of the PKK as an ‘enemy,’ the Turkish Armed Forces consented to a new approach in handling Turkey’s ‘Kurdish question.’  In order to balance the PKK influence in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish populated provinces, the Turkish army (even as a stronghold of secularism) adopted the ruling AKP’s perspective of forging an ‘Islamic Brotherhood,’ with the aim of ideologically integrating the Kurds into the Turkish state.  The strategy would be completed by Turkey’s recognition of the Northern Iraqi Kurdish administration, whose support Ankara desperately needed to block PKK infiltration into Turkish territory.

The start of the massive Turkish air forces operation over PKK-controlled areas of Northern Iraq in the spring of 2007 marked the end of the ‘nationalist campaign’ against U.S. interests under the auspices of Turkish Armed Forces.  There was no more need for ‘anti-U.S.’ agitation.  The ‘subversive organizations’ mobilized to campaign against Kurds had to be removed from the scene.  The sabotages, arsons, lynching attempts, and assassinations directed at Kurds and pro-Western liberals were to be prosecuted. The nationalist NGOs and manipulations within political parties, trade unions, and the media were not as useful and they should be ended.  The eccentric organizations formed during the five-year campaign were denied former support and/or tolerance by the Turkish armed forces and by its ‘special security apparatuses.’

The road to the ‘Ergenekon’ operation was wide open.  It was revealed during the prosecution that an aborted military coup was in the making from 2002-04.  It failed to develop for fear of international isolation as well as the lack of full support of the army high command.  The Turkish Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Buyukanit, in his last public statement, bluntly said: “Those who are guilty will pay for it.  The Armed Forces is not a criminal organization!”  The crackdown on the Ergenekon organization halted at the gates of Turkey’s Chief of Staff’s military campus, with the police having to settle for the handcuffing of retired generals.

To the surprise of the once all-powerful ‘secularist’ camp, the Armed Forces also refrained from publicly backing the charges of anti-secularism against the AKP.  Deniz Baykal, the leader of the main opposition CHP, sharply reacted against the Chief of Staff’s silence as the AKP moved to lift the ban on wearing the veil in the universities: “We have been left only with the judiciary to rely on.”

The Head Prosecutor of the Republic charged the AKP with “attempting at establishing an Islamic state,” and this indictment was indeed a call for action in legal terms for the armed forces to play its historic role.  It was not an ordinary legal document as such.  It is highly unlikely that this indictment will retain its initial weight as the political forces are realigned amidst military operations in the southeast, police operations in the capital Ankara that are handcuffing the once almighty generals, and the deadly blasts in an Istanbul suburb which have claimed the lives of innocent civilians.

There Exists a Third Pole!

Although the two parties to the ongoing conflict would like to ally social forces to their respective individual camps, there is a third party in the social struggle.  This is the party of labor, the oppressed, the poor, Kurds, Alevites, women, youth, and others.

Those who have marched towards the banned Taksim Square and paid the price of police brutality on May 1st; those who have poured out into the streets to protest against the neoliberal Social Security Law that deprives workers of the last gains of the social welfare state; those who challenge the ecologically hazardous mining industries and nuclear power plants; and those who for decades have fought for the brotherhood of Turkey’s peoples and for a peaceful solution to the ‘Kurdish question’ comprise the bulk of this camp.

Taking sides with one of the parties to the present conflict who strive for articulating Turkey with one or the other pole of capitalist globalization will not promote — and will actively be against — their social, political, economic, and cultural interests.  This third force is fighting to build its own capacities to address the people and oppose playing one of the tunes in either of the bourgeois choruses.

The present situation throws up discussion of mainly two options.  On the one hand, the restoration of a ‘military guardianship’ regime, which may or may not get along with the AKP government, is posited.  Turkey, however, is not faced with an imminent military takeover as there exists no real social-economic pretext for such an extraordinary regime, in terms of the present balance of class forces.

On the other hand, the AKP is often represented as deepening an Islamic solution to the impasse.  But while the AKP pursues a social-cultural policy of pushing Islamist values in daily life as an instrument of its ideological-cultural hegemony, it is highly doubtful that the party is aiming at an Islamic state, simply for the concrete reason that this would inflict more harm on its power base than its secularist opponents.  An Islamist Turkey would inevitably be ousted from the negotiations table for EU membership (a major guarantee for the free circulation of Turkish capital and goods within the Euro zone, Turkey’s major foreign trade partner).

That is why a ‘third pole’ is necessary to widen political options in Turkey.  It is also necessary to bring to justice the Turkish political and military authorities responsible over the last decade for encouraging the secret Ergenekon organization.  The military and political elites did so either through tolerance for extra-legal forces or by abusing their power to assist such forces for the sake of the survival of the military ‘guardianship’ regime.  They did so at the expense of the lives of hundreds of people and the uncountable waste of human and material resources.

Such Herculean tasks can only be undertaken by a force that is not the accomplice of any bourgeois government and that has no tolerance for oppression either by the political Islamists or by the ultra-nationalists.  This task can only be assumed by those political forces that fight for a Social Republic.  Such a pole in Turkey is emerging.

Sungur Savran is editor of the newspaper Isci Mucadelesi (Workers’ Struggle, at in Istanbul, Turkey.  Ertugrul Kürkçü is the Secretary General of the IPS Communication Foundation and Coordinator of the alternative communication project BIA (Independent Communication Network, at  He has been involved in journalism and publishing since 1986 when he was released from prison, 14 years after his conviction for armed resistance against the military rule of 1972.  His work occasionally appears in Siyasi Gazete, Express, and other publications of the opposition in Turkey and in international political publications such as the Middle East Report, Covert Action Quarterly, and War & Peace Reporting.  He can be reached at  The articles above were first published in Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin The Bullet (No. 130, 4 August 2008).  They are reproduced here for educational purposes.

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