The general elections, Islam and the left in Turkey


Posted: 9 October 07

Ron Margulies

Are Islamist movements ‘radical’ or ‘ultra-conservative’? A so-called “Islamic” party has just been elected with nearly 50% of the vote in Turkey. It is in no way “ultra-conservative”. It is, of course, conservative on such issues as the economy, the family, social mores, etc., but no more so than Blair and less so than Bush. Because it comes from a non-Kemalist, non-nationalist, Islamist tradition and because a part of the Kemalist state machine (with the social democrats as its political voice and the westernised, urban middle class as its social base) uses the language of anti-imperialist nationalism to attack this party, the party has positioned itself as neither anti-imperialist nor nationalist. Moreover, because it is able to mobilise mass electoral support from the rural and urban lower classes (including the working class) on the basis of its relaxed and tolerant attitude to Islam (but no more than that), it is able to stare the Kemalist state down (while taking care not to provoke a military coup) and take steps which are perhaps not “radical” but certainly “progressive” in reforming the state: reducing the role of the military, resolving the Kurdish and Cyprus issues, allowing the issue of the Armenian genocide to be discussed, introducing less restrictive legislation in a range of areas (in part to meet the requirements of EU accession, but not just for that reason).

Further to complicate matters, the implementation of these reforms is the demand not of any mass movement from below, but of the bulk of the ruling class. Thus, we have an “Islamist” party implementing the neo-liberal package to the letter, while, as part of the same package, carrying out quite far-reaching reforms, and doing both with the support of big business. And it is, all the time, attacked by the military, the social democrats and much of the left as “reactionary”, “secretly fundamentalist” and “ultra-conservative”; not because of its neo-liberalism, but because of its imaginary Islamism.

This has had two crucially important effects over the past five years, since the AKP government was first elected in 2002.

Firstly, the government’s neo-liberal policies (privatisation, “reform” of the health and social security systems, etc.) have remained unopposed in parliament, where the only other party, the social democrats, have appointed themselves the guardians of “the secular republic” and brought this issue (laicism) to the fore at the expense of all others. Given that the government did nothing which could be construed as even vaguely Islamic, the social democrats’ shrill screams about the grave dangers posed by an “Islamic” government carried no weight at all with the population at large. If anything, in a country where a majority of the people consider themselves to be (not “Islamists”, but) Muslims, it created a perception of the government as being unjustly attacked and made people look upon it with more sympathy than they might have done. Add to this the fact that the economy has grown every single month for the past five years and that the industrial struggle has been practically non-existent (with trade union membership halved over the past 20 years), and there has effectively been no fightback against neo-liberalism either in parliament or in the workplace/street.

Secondly, the very fact that there is an “Islamic” government in power, the fact that this government has shown a willingness to resolve the Kurdish, Cyprus and Armenian issues, the fact that the EU is pushing for the political role of the military to be curtailed (among other things) and for minority (Greek, Armenian, Jewish, as well as Kurdish) rights to be recognised have all combined to act as a red rag to the bull of the Kemalist establishment. As a result, there has been a backlash, a concerted effort from the top to whip up nationalism and to portray all efforts to reform the state as “betraying Kemal’s legacy”, “destroying the indivisibility of the state and the country”, “selling the country out to the US and the EU”, “giving in to the US project for a new Middle East and/or going along with the US project of promoting moderate Islam”.

There have been a number of well-organised peaks to this backlash: the court cases against famous authors and journalists (most notably Orhan Pamuk) for “insulting Turkishness” (in Pamuk’s case this consisted of saying that 30.000 Kurds and one million Armenians had died in Turkey); the bombing of a bookshop in a Kurdish town, with two low-ranking army officers later charged; the assassination of Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink in broad daylight, with pictures later published of his assassin in the police headquarters where he was held, posing in front of a Turkish flag and a poster of Kemal Atatürk, next to two policemen, with a cigarette in his hand; the murder of a Catholic priest in the Black Sea town of Trabzon and three Turkish Protestants in a southern town (with an accompanying furore about “missionary activities” – a furore whipped up by nationalists, not Islamists!); several attacks on Kurds in Turkish towns; hugely hyped-up funerals for Turkish troops who die in the war with the PKK; endless pronouncements on political issues by the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, including one where he said “Anyone who refuses to say ‘How happy is he who is a Turk’ (a saying by Kemal) is an enemy of the state and will remain so”; and finally the huge meetings to “Defend the Republic”, each of them a sea of Turkish flags, with barely disguised calls from the platform for a military takeover.

All of these things have been organised officially, semi-officially or official-but-clandestinely by what is widely called “the deep state” in Turkey. In fact, there is nothing “deep” about it. At one end it consists of murky organisations with links to both the secret services and the youth organisations of the two fascist parties, but at the other end it goes all the way to the very un-deep Chief of Staff.

What has been happening for the past five or more years, in a nutshell, is that the Kemalist state (with the military and the bureaucracy to the fore) and its appendages (the media, the academic establishment, etc.) have been defending themselves vigorously against what they rightly perceive (but exaggerate) as an attack on all the sacred cows of Kemalism and on their power.

They are fighting a losing battle, unless the military take power directly, which seems to be unlikely in the near future (it is unlikely – though it cannot be ruled out completely – because legitimising a coup against a government which has just got 47% of the vote would be well nigh impossible). Indeed, they are fighting a losing battle even if the military do take power directly, because the ruling class wants to join the EU (and is prepared to do the necessary to that end), and wants to see the Kurdish, Cyprus and Armenian issues resolved (the festering issues bring them no gain, their resolution would bring profits). The relationship between the ruling class and the military (and the state generally) is always mediated, and in Turkey it is more mediated than most, with the military sometimes acting as if its interests were completely separate from those of the ruling class. Never the less, the ruling class will, in the end, get its way.

However, in fighting this losing battle, and fighting it viciously, they have ensured that the fault line in Turkish politics is not neo-liberalism, and not the war in Iraq, but nationalism, racism, the role of the military, Islam and democracy. That is what exercises, excites and mobilises everyone; that is what the general election was fought over; that is what a military coup, if it happens, will happen over. The single most striking mass mobilisation ever in this country took place in January this year when 250,000 people marched behind Hrant Dink’s funeral hearse, carrying small placards which read “We are all Armenians”. No one even imagined that the march would be even one-tenth as big, and no greater blow could be dealt to the official ideology of the Turkish state.

The run-up to the general election

The elections were normally due in November. An early election was sparked off, however, when the government was prevented from getting its preferred candidate elected state president in April. Prime Minister Erdoğan had long said that he would be the next president. As the president is elected by parliament and Erdoğan enjoyed a comfortable parliamentary majority, he would have no trouble getting elected. This had been a simmering problem ever since Erdoğan announced his presidential intention. For two reasons: the presidential palace was seen by the Kemalists as their last bulwark unsullied by Islam (the president is not a simple figurehead, but enjoys considerable powers of veto and appointment of state officials), and Erdoğan’s wife wears a headscarf (“We will not have a woman wearing a headscarf in the presidential palace!” they screamed!).

When push came to shove, Erdoğan took a step back (as he has carefully done for five years) and put forward not himself but the Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül. This was obviously a miscalculation or crossed wires in Erdoğan’s talks with the military. He thought Gül would be acceptable; he was wrong. Parliament voted for Gül’s presidency, the social democrats took the matter to the Constitutional Court (claiming that there was no quorum of two-thirds in the house during the vote), the military issued their e-memorandum warning about the dangers of Islam and threatening to act, and the Constitutional Court ruled Gül’s election invalid (although no previous president had had the two-thirds quorum!)

It is important to point out that both the memorandum and the Constitutional Court’s ruling were widely seen by the population (and even by much of the usually slavish media) as undemocratic, and unfair on Gül. As for the “threat” of headscarves in the presidential palace, this is a complete non-issue for the overwhelming majority of the population who either wear headscarves or cannot give a damn about who does and who doesn’t.

The failure to elect the president triggered off an early general election.

The general election of 22 July

The electoral system, a very democratic version of proportional representation, is rendered utterly undemocratic by a 10% national threshold designed to keep the Kurds out. In the last elections in 2002, the threshold kept out not only the Kurds, but all parties except for two, the AKP and the social democratic CHP. The fact that AKP had a huge parliamentary majority with only 34% of the national vote was a stick frequently used to beat it, although, of course, they were not the ones to introduce the threshold (it was brought in after the military coup of 1980).

The election campaign period was short and sharp, with the battle lines very clearly drawn. Three parties were expected to break through the threshold, and they did: AKP, CHP and the fascist MHP.

AKP, assured of its victory, ran a relatively low-key campaign based on its record. By contrast, CHP continued what it had been doing for the previous five years, running a rabidly nationalist, anti-Islam, alarmist, scare-mongering campaign. One of their full-page newspaper ads was typical: it showed Erdoğan with his hands up (he was saluting a crowd, but it also looked like the gesture for surrendering) and under his picture were the words “The government’s approach to the PKK”. Many leading CHP supporters, in the media and elsewhere, argued that people who did not want to vote for the “left” (meaning the CHP!) should vote for the fascists, so that the two parties could form a coalition to keep AKP out and “defend the republic, the nation and the state”.

None of this had any effect on a population which has repeatedly indicated that it does not see Islam as a threat of any kind at all, is sick and tired of the fighting in the Kurdish provinces, and does not approve of the military interfering in politics. This is not left-wing wishful thinking. It was proved once again when the combined vote of the four rabidly nationalistic parties (CHP, MHP and two smaller parties) went down slightly, while AKP’s went up from 34% to 47%. It should be noted that in the face of the nationalist assault on it, AKP largely resisted what must have been a strong temptation to play the nationalistic card itself and thus pull the rug from under its opponents’ feet.

The Kurds and the left

In the 2002 elections, the Kurdish Party (DTP) polled 6% of the vote nationally and, because of the 10% threshold, got no members of parliament in spite of the fact that it had a clear majority in many Kurdish areas. There was no doubt that they would get about the same vote this time, or even lose some votes to AKP. This is indeed what happened.

The parties of the left are ÖDP (the Freedom and Solidarity Party, a radical, centrist, non-marxist organisation with, of course, many marxists in it), EMEP (the Labour Party, ex-pro-Albanian, stalinist and somewhat Kemalist), the Workers Party (ex-pro-Peking, stalinist and rabidly Kemalist, frequently calling for a military coup to defend the “Republic” against Islam and Kurdish separatism), and TKP (the Communist Party, stalinist and rabidly Kemalist; their newspaper Communist was re-named Patriot a few months before the elections), and SDP (the Party of Socialist Democracy, which seems to have no politics other than to support the Kurds). In 2002, ÖDP, the Workers Party and TKP all got less than one half of 1%. EMEP and SDP joined an electoral pact with the Kurdish party and contributed next to nothing to the Kurdish vote. The rest of the left includes a large variety of stalinist groups arguing for armed struggle (rural or urban) but no longer able to put their theory into practice.

For many months before the election, the idea became widely discussed that the only way the 10% threshold could be circumvented was to put up independent candidates (the threshold only applies to parties). So, for example, the Kurdish party could put up its candidates not as party candidates but as “independents”, everyone would know who these were, DTP would publish a list saying “these are the candidates we support”, they would win in several Kurdish areas and go to parliament. If, on the other hand, they stood as party candidates, they would be ruled out even where they got the majority of the vote, because the party had not got 10% nationally. The same would apply to left candidates who stood not in the name of their party but as “independents”.

In the end, this is what happened:

The Kurdish party put up “independent” candidates, both in the Kurdish areas and in a number of big cities where there is a sizeable Kurdish migrant population. They needed to get 20 MPs elected in order to get a parliamentary ‘group’ (having such a ‘group’ gives you more frequent speaking rights, etc.). In spite of various shenanigans by the state, they succeeded in getting 22 Kurdish members of parliament elected. The 10% threshold is dead in the water.

The Kurdish party also put on the list of “the candidates we support” the chairmen of EMEP and ÖDP, and the honorary chairman of SDP. The EMEP leader was put up in Izmir (a Kemalist stronghold) and lost miserably, getting a smaller vote than the Kurds had in 2002. The SDP honorary chairman (in fact a semi-detached member of the party and former head of the Human Rights Association) was put up in Diyarbakir (where the Kurds could put up a tree trunk and win) and won. He is now part of the DTP ‘group’ in parliament.

The ÖDP chairman, Ufuk Uras, is a rather different story. He is also somewhat semi-detached, a member of the anti-war and social forum movements in spite of his party, strongly anti-nationalist in spite of his party, and deeply unpopular among a certain section of his party. Thus, while he was on the DTP list, he was widely and rightly perceived as being different from all the other DTP-list candidates, his campaign mobilised very many new, young and unaligned people. He won, with nearly 80,000 votes, on the Asian side of Istanbul. And he has not joined the DTP group in parliament.

There was one other truly independent candidate, Baskin Oran, a prominent, left-wing professor with a high profile and a broad appeal, who stood on the European side of Istanbul. He was put up by a group of people on the left, but mostly not members of any organisation, including trade unionists, lecturers, journalists, etc. These people shared the view that the candidate should have an appeal beyond the narrow socialist left, that support should be sought from the DTP but that the candidate should not be part of the DTP “list”, that an eye should be kept on the possibility of turning the election campaign (particularly if successful) into something more permanent.

The campaign for Baskin Oran galvanised and rejuvenated everyone on the left and beyond. Countless numbers of people new to active politics who wouldn’t touch the existing organisations with a barge pole took part in the campaign. Everyone was talking about what to do/create/build after the election.

After promising support for Oran, DTP broke their promise (for their own reasons) and stood their own “independent” candidate against him. As a result, neither Oran nor the DTP candidate won, but Oran got a very respectable 31,000 votes.

The Uras and Oran campaigns, one on each side of the Bosporus, were necessarily separate, but worked quite closely together, with the two men often appearing on each other’s platforms. The two candidates/campaigns were widely perceived as a “package” and seen not only in Istanbul but across the country as something new, different, exciting and promising. (The Baskin Oran website, for example, received as many messages of support from outside Istanbul as it did from his own electoral area). Nobody confused this package with any of the large variety of other “independent left” candidates put up by countless small organisations (all of whom got laughable votes).

With Uras now in parliament and the Oran campaign deciding to keep its election office and website open, the very real possibility has been created of a new political formation emerging from the two campaigns, perhaps very roughly along the lines of Respect in Britain or the Left Party in Germany. Both the people at the centre of the campaigns and the people on the ground are constantly discussing this possibility. It will not be immediate and it will not be easy, but it is now a realistic hope.

In the meantime, the government, strengthened by its thumping election victory, will proceed with its neo-liberal programme, making it even more necessary for a new left to emerge which can fight the government on the real issues rather than the imaginary threat of Islamic fundamentalism.