Turkey after the election

5 July 2015

Note: this article was written before the Presidential attempt to start a civil war and invade Syria with the aim of nullifying the results of the election.

To understand the significance and likely impact of the Turkish election result it needs to be seen in the context of Turkey’s place in the world economy, the Middle East, political conflicts in Europe and the class struggle within Turkey’s borders.


Chris Stephenson

Note: This article was written before the Presidentail attempt to start a civil war and invade Syria with the aim of nullifying the results of the election.

The election

The HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) doubled its 2011 general election vote to 13.1%, winning 80 seats in the Turkish parliament.

Outside the Kurdish areas in cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul and Izmir the HDP tripled its vote[1].

The HDP’s success has denied the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) a majority in parliament and completely sunk President Erdoğan’s ambitions for an executive presidency. A week before the elections many observers still believed that the HDP would remain below the 10% threshold. This dramatic success has changed the political landscape in Turkey.

In a country that is 98% Muslim the HDP,  with a core electoral base of mostly devout Kurdish Sunni Muslims, put up a multi-ethnic, multi-faith list of candidates, called for the abolition of the Department of Religious Affairs, which employs all of the 70,000 Imams in Turkey, supported gay rights, the equality of women and a series of radical social and economic demands including doubling the basic wage.

Throughout the election campaign the AKP and its media relentlessly attacked the HDP as “godless”, “terrorist” and “anti-religion” in an attempt to play both the nationalist and religious sectarian cards. This went as far as claims that HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş had eaten a bacon sandwich – pork is forbidden in the Muslim faith. The HDP’s LGBT candidates were also subjected to disgusting attacks. Demirtaş himself was attacked because his elder brother is a guerilla in Northen Iraq.

The attacks were also physical. The HDP suffered 170 separate violent attacks which culminated in the bombing of the final HDP election rally in Diyarbakır killing three and maiming dozens of people. The aim of the physical attacks was both to intimidate and to provoke a violent reaction from HDP supporters that would have eroded HDP claims to be the party of inter-ethnic peace. Apart from the final bloody attack in Diyarbakır,  no government spokesperson  has condemned these attacks and there have been almost no arrests.

Against all these difficulties, against a barrage of lies from the government-controlled media and with substantial state funding for  all main parties and none for the HDP,  the HDP’s vote exceeded all expectations. This was achieved because the HDP did not back pedal on any of its positions. Rather it counter attacked. On religion and on life style it defended freedom for all faiths and non-interference by the state in religious affairs. Demirtaş defended his brother saying, “You kept him in prison for so many years, you never allowed him to take part in the political arena, now he is in Iraq conducting an honourable fight against ISIS”. On the violent provocations the HDP turned these against the government. It exposed how the government had tried to set up a scenario in Ağrı (a small Kurdish city in Turkey) in which the PKK would kill soldiers but where instead Kurdish villagers actually rescued the soldiers from the mountainside where they had been abandoned and saved their lives. The HDP supported the striking and occupying metal workers.

Now the HDP has prevented the establishment of a Putin style authoritarian presidential regime and   secured an important political guarantee for the continuation of the peace process with the Kurds. They have also achieved an unprecedented victory for the left, initiating  an important restructuring of ideas and alliances. Looking at the share of the HDP vote that can be attributed in some way to the left, probably around 3-4%, the highest previous vote for the radical left was 2.9% for the TİP (Turkish Workers Party) in 1965, with a much less radical program than the HDP.

The rise and fall of the AKP

The HDP’s victory comes at an important time. The AKP came to power in 2002 after the 2000/2001 financial and economic crash that reduced real wages by 40% in one year. In that election, angry voters destroyed three parties – ANAP (Motherland Party), DSP (Democratic Left Party), and DYP (the True Path Party) all of which were previously the parties of prime ministers –  reducing them to tiny rumps. A fourth party, and member of the 1999-2002 coalition government, the fascist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) fell below the 10% threshold and remained outside parliament. Since then under  AKP rule Turkey has experienced a debt and property speclation fuelled boom that has reduced unemployment and left most people feeling a little better off. But the aggressive neoliberal economic policies of the AKP, with privatisation and outsourcing, have meant that inequality has been rising. Turkey is ranked fourth among the top countries in the world for inequality according to the OECD. Real wages have been falling and unemployment is now rising again with youth unemployment at close to 20%.

While  economic factors have been important, the reasons for both the fall and rise of the  AKP are as much political as economic. The election of the AKP in 2002 was a reaction both to the economic crash of 2000-2001 and to the oppressive policies of the army and the secular elite toward devout Muslims and to the 28 February 1997 military coup led by an Islamist politician, which removed an elected government from power. With around 60% of women being covered, the exclusion of women wearing the headscarf from university education and civil service and teaching jobs become an issue of civil rights in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

At first the AKP moved very cautiously fearing another military intervention. Indeed the army were plotting interventions throughout the early years of the AKP’s rule. It took ten years to lift the headscarf ban for school teachers and for judges and prosecutors it was only lifted in the week before the 2015 election after 13 years of  AKP rule.

In the early years of AKP rule political freedom and freedom of expression expanded. After 2007 the AKP began to take steps toward a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question. The rising vote for the AKP in subsequent elections reflected these political gains as much as the growth in the economy.

Two major political events disrupted the rise in support for the AKP. After the 2011 general election the AKP took a step away from the peace process with the Kurds and the fighting and killing started again. In 2013, in pursuit of a speculative scheme to build a shopping mall over Gezi Park in Taksim Square in Istanbul, the government fought bloody clashes with (mostly) young people occupying the square. In subsequent protests across Turkey over a period of weeks eight protestors were killed. Each of these two developments caused a serious drop in support for the AKP. According to an opinion poll that examined the intentions of AKP voters stalling the peace process in 2011 cost the AKP the support of about 1 in 7 of its voters, and the attacks on the Gezi protests about 1 in 10. AKP voters wanted peace and they wanted civil rights. However, none of the opposition parties offered these discontent AKP voters an alternative. The MHP and CHP both opposed the peace process with the Kurds. The CHP was against the right to wear the headscarf. The result was that discontent AKP voters returned to the fold when it came to an election. In local and presidential elections in 2014  the AKP continued to get high votes recieving 52% in the August 2014 presidential election.

Splits in the ruling class about how to divide power and money led to revelations of massive corruption, with shoe boxes full of money and cash counting machines being discovered in the bedrooms of ministers’ sons.  Conflicts with the Gülen religious sect, that had been an ally of  the AKP since 2002 and had provided many cadres to run the state, led to a dramatic shift in the relationship between  the AKP and parts of the state machine, particularly the army. Generals imprisoned on the orders of prosecutors close to the Gülen sect were released while the prosecutors themselves were imprisoned.

Shifting relationships with imperialism and the effects of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq have also played an important role in the AKP’s crisis. The  regime has become increasingly close to Saudi and Qatari capital from which flows of money have helped fuel Turkey’s property boom and the associated corruption. Meanwhile the flow of supplies through Turkey to the sectarian, jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition that the Saudis and Qataris are promoting has also fuelled corruption and shaped government policy toward the Syrian conflict and therefore to the peace process with the Kurds of Turkey.

Who voted for the HDP and why?

The ballot box by ballot box analysis allowed by the election system and a flurry of post election polls give us a good picture of how the HDP increased its vote, compared with the presidential and local elections of 2014 and the general election of 2011.

The Kurds

The biggest component was the almost complete collapse of the Kurdish vote for the AKP. This happened both in the predominantly Kurdish areas of East and South East Turkey, and also in the big cities where very large numbers of Kurds live and work. In the past Kurds voted for  the AKP in large numbers for two good reasons. Very many Kurds are deeply pious Sunni Muslims and  the AKP stood for an end to discrimination against their beliefs and practices, in particular to the ban on women wearing the headscarf in universities and in government employment. And  the AKP promised to bring peace. The party was seen as free of the nationalist baggage of the Kemalist elite that had ruled Turkey (and oppressed and slaughtered Kurds) since 1923.

So the most important factor at work here was the abandonment by the government of the peace process in the run up to the election. And this was intimately connected to developments across the border in Syria. The Turkish government has been increasingly involved in the conflict and it is now beyond reasonable doubt that arms, probably funded by the Saudis and Qataris, have been funnelled to ISIS and other sectarian forces like the al Nusra front. The Turkish deep state is deeply uncomfortable with the foundation of the cantons of Rojava (the Syrian section of Kurdistan) on the other side of the border, seeing their existence as strengthening the hand of the PKK in any negotiations with the government inside Turkey.

On the other hand, the Rojava cantons are seen as a beacon of hope by many of Turkey’s Kurds who see the multi-ethnic autonomous local government that has been declared there as a model for the solution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey.

When the Kobane canton was threatened with extinction by ISIS in October 2014, Tayyip Erdoğan said approvingly in a speech, “Kobane will fall at any minute”. There  was a furious reaction from Kurds in Turkey and in two days of street fighting on October 6 and 7 50 people died, mostly killed by the police. Eventually under very restrictive conditions and with the participation of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga closer to the Turkish (and US) governments some YPG fighters were allowed to move through Turkish territory to relieve Kobane.

This allowed the peace process to revive in Turkey. In March 2015, this resulted in the “Dolmabahçe Declaration”.

After this joint declaration of a ten point agenda for the peace process, made with Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan and an HDP delegation sitting round the same table in the Dolmabahçe  Palace, a message endorsing the peace process and the ten points from imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was read out to the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakır on 21 March.

This process was torpedoed the next day by President Tayyip Erdoğan, who said he did not recognise the 10 points, and the government carried out a 180 degree turn stating that “we are not sitting at the table”, then “there is no table”, though manifestly there was, or at least had been, a table. Indeed, the jail quarters of Abdullah Öcalan on the island of İmralı  include a conference table and chairs used not only for visits by delegations from the HDP, but also for talks with government representatives.

But for the duration of the election all communication with Öcalan was cut off and remains so at the time of writing.

The electoral result of the turn by Erdoğan against the peace process was a landslide swing towards the HDP among Kurds. In Diyarbakır, the effective capital of the Kurdish areas, the HDP got 80% of the vote and an HDP candidate brought in at the last moment to make up the numbers when another candidate became ill was elected to parliament to everyone’s astonishment including his own. This swing also took place among the very large numbers of Kurds in the big cities of western Turkey.

The left…

…or  rather, the left outside the Kurdish movement. The Kurdish movement is politically broad and many of its activists are by any reasonable test on the left. Kurdish activists are also trade union activists, and activists in other social movements.

The arithmetic of the 10% threshold had a contradictory effect. Rigged electoral systems sometimes backfire. The British first past the post system, retained historically to protect the two party system, gave the SNP and its anti-austerity platform 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland in the recent UK election. A 50 seat bonus to the party with the highest vote, only recently introduced in Greece to promote “stable government”, gave Syriza close to a majority in the Greek parliament with far short of 50% of the vote. The 10% threshold served well to help keep the Kurds out of parliament for 25 years, except for a brief presence on the SHP (Social Democrat Populist Party) ticket in 1991 ending in long years of imprisonment for Kurdish MPs. In 2007 and 2011 the Kurds allied with the left and tiptoed round the threshold to achieve some limited representation in parliament.

The decision by the HDP to stand as a party in the 2015 general election changed the arithmetic. Because the 10% threshold made this decision an “all or nothing” gamble it had a dramatic effect on the likely parliamentary outcome. If the gamble failed and the HDP ended up with no MPs, the AKP would have had a good chance of winning enough seats (in constituencies where the majority voted for the HDP, but the HDP candidates had been disbarred by the threshold) to have the super majority needed to make changes to the constitution (or take them to a referendum). If the gamble had succeeded, the AKP majority would  have been reduced to the point where they would have been unable to change the constitution and push through Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan for an executive presidency. No-one was seriously considering the possibility that the  AKP would be denied a majority until the very last days of the election campaign.

This created a political problem for the “secularist” left including some CHP (Republican Peoples Party) voters and those on the far left influenced by Kemalism and therefore both wary of any involvement with the Kurdish movement and allergic to Islamism, seeing it as far worse than “ordinary” political conservatism or even as a form of fascism. These people on the Kemalist influenced left were caught between two competing prejudices, against the Kurds and against the Islamists.

Some of the more nationalist elements in both the social democratic and the extra parliamentary left tried to square this circle by suggesting that there was some kind of “secret deal” between the AKP and the HDP leadership, that the HDP would support the AKP’s constitutional changes in exchange for some kind of autonomy for the Kurdish areas. There was an echo of another election far away, in the United Kingdom, where it was being suggested that votes for the Scottish National Party in Scotland would bring in the Tories, and even that the SNP had a “secret deal” with the Tories. A story was even spread of an alleged conversation with the French Ambassador in which SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has expressed a preference for a Tory government. Nicola Sturgeon responded by declaring that the SNP would never support the Tories and offering a deal to Labour. HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş responded similarly. He held a meeting of the HDP parliamentary group, the last before the election, in which his entire speech consisted of a single sentence to the effect that the HDP would never enter a coalition with the AKP and would never allow Tayyip Erdoğan to become executive president.

This put enormous pressure on those elements of both the radical and social democratic left resisting collaboration with the Kurdish movement. The existence of a Kurdish movement that had frozen the armed struggle, and was on the brink of abandoning it, and was extending an invitation to the rest of the left for a joint struggle to democratise Turkey appealed to many in the rank and file of the left.

The BHH (United June Movement – refering to the June 2013 Gezi protests) is a coming together of elements of the more Kemalist radical left in a clear attempt to provide an electoral counterweight to the left alliance with the Kurdish movement. The pressure of the call from the HDP caused this alliance to crumble and shift. One significant group, the Halkevleri (Peoples Houses) called for a vote for the HDP. Another, the ÖDP (Freedom and Solidarity Party), simply failed to take a position on the election at all, since it would have been unable to hold its members together had it done so. Other groups in BHH suffered splits of various kinds. The United June Movement was unable to unite over the elections. The organisational details are unimportant, but what is is that the attachment of numbers of people on the left to Kemalist ideology was being broken. This was a shift to the left and another nail in the coffin of the poisonous influence of Kemalism.

This shift was not a massive shift in votes; the  radical left is small in electoral terms. Post election analyses all confirm that the amount of tactical voting by traditional CHP voters, the so-called “borrowed vote”, was far from decisive. Even leading figures in the HDP were referring to their debt to the “borrowed votes”, but it seems that these formed less than 1% of the HDP’s 13%. Loyalty to a party like the CHP is not that easily broken. Many CHP voters expressed sympathy for the HDP but when they got to the ballot box their “hand wouldn’t go there” and they voted CHP again.

The real shift was a shift in the political centre of gravity on the left. Many on the left but not in traditional left organisations like those who took part in the Gezi protests two years ago actively campaigned for the HDP. One example was the “Ondan sonra” (“after 10%”) campaign, which ran an independent campaign for a vote for the HDP on the streets and made imaginative and effective use of social media among other tactics. Even in childrens’ parks multi-coloured hopscotches painted on the tarmac led to “10%”. “Ondan sonra” held its own activities and rallies.

In elections that take place every four years the electorate itself changes. Old people die and young people become old enough to vote. This process changes the electorate by as much as 8% each election. So swings in voting percentages are not necessarily the result of people changing their minds. Post election polls showed that HDP support was higher at 19% among 18-24 year olds, those voting mostly for the first time.

There were negative and positive reasons for voting for the HDP. Some voted simply to frustrate Erdoğan’s plan for an executive presidency, others  because they supported the HDP’s manifesto  of peace, ethnic and religious tolerance, a new, less authoritarian life, more social justice and less ripoffs by the rich and powerful. Both polls and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that the positive reasons strongly outweighed the negative reasons. Even those voting for the HDP for negative reasons have taken an important step to break old taboos. CHP voters have been heard to say, “I am going to vote for the PKK this time”, thus dramatising the shift they are making.

The end result was dramatic. HDP strategic planners had two targets for the election campaign, a “realistic target” and a “crazy target”. The actual result was between the two but a little closer to the “crazy target”. But the real change is in the political atmosphere. In 1991 when Leyla Zana tried to take the oath in parliament as an MP she was barracked from the moment she started. Not long after she was dragged from parliament and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1999 When Merve Kavakçı tried to take the oath in parliament while wearing a headscarf, it was members of the Democratic Left Party who stopped her. She was thrown out of parliament (but not jailed). Now there are a total of 21 headscarf wearing MPs (among the AKP – one of them is Merve Kavakçı’s sister – and HDP) and 80 MPs from the HDP, including Leyla Zana. This is a big change in Turkish politics and a serious crack in the myth of the power and invincibility of the state.

This raises many questions for the left. For example, the independent leftists of the “After 10%” campaign, who did not want to become part of the HDP and ran a one issue campaign around democracy and the effect of the threshold now face a dilemma. Their problem is “after  “After 10%”  what next?” However long until the next election, and it seems unlikely that it will be four years, there is the need to develop a politics that can answer the needs of the movement when there isn’t an election going on.

The Kurdish movement and elections

The first MPs from the Kurdish movement were elected into parliament on the SHP list in the 1991 general election. They were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and bundled off from the steps of Parliament to ten years in prison in 1994. Leyla Zana was one of those MPs. These were the dark days of thousands of “murders by persons unknown” and disappearances conducted by the organs of the “deep state”.

DEHAP (Who is this?) stood in the general elections of 2002 as an umbrella for the Kurdish movement and 11 left wing parties. It got 6.2% of the vote, below the 10% threshold to elect MPs. In 2007 two important developments changed the situation. In January Armenian activist Hrant Dink was murdered. At his funeral hundreds of thousands chanted “We Are All Armenians”, creating the hope that a new, anti-nationalist left was possible. Then in April the army intervened to prevent parliament electing AKP member Abdullah Gül to the presidency, triggering an early general election. A massive grass roots “common candidate” internet campaign, which collected a flood of signatures, persuaded many on the left and in the Kurdish movement that a joint campaign of independent candidates, which would side-step the 10% threshold, could elect enough MPs to form a parliamentary group. The weight of grass roots support forced sometimes unwilling left leaderships into the alliance. The result was 21 MPs, one of them from the non-Kurdish left. The exercise was repeated in 2011, this time with “millimetric precision” allowing the division of votes between multiple independent candidates in some of Turkey’s large multi-member constituencies. This put 35 MPs into parliament, three of them from the left outside the Kurdish movement.

In 2014 the HDP, as it had now become, faced the challenge of three elections: local election in March 2014, a presidential election in August 2014 and general elections in June 2015.

The HDP was now an umbrella party including a number of left organisations, while a renamed version of the old BDP, the DBP,  continued to function in the Kurdish areas as a mostly Kurdish party – an accommodation with parts of the Kurdish constituency not entirely ready to embrace the left.

In the local elections candidates in the Kurdish areas stood on the DBP ticket. The DBP increased  slightly the number of local councils it controls to just over a hundred including that of a major city, the Greater Diyarbakir Council.

The presidential campaign offered the first opportunity for a truly national campaign and one based around the “unity” politics symbolised by the HDP presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş. This campaign showed the potential for a campaign to reach out beyond the traditional Kurdish party support and got 9.8% of the vote, tantalisingly close to the 10% threshold.

This led to the decision to contest the 2015 general election as a party. In retrospect, this seems inevitable. Yet at the time it was fiercely debated and the HDP’s decision was hotly criticised by many on the left. Some thought that HDP was taking an unjustified risk in going for the all or nothing option of standing as a party. In fact, this option forced many voters opposed to the increasing authoritarianism of the AKP to make a political choice that also forced them to move to the left. Some of the critics have now offered self criticisms of their pre-election positions, others have not.

What does the HDP stand for?

The published election programme of the HDP was a very radical one: from gay rights to doubling the minimum wage, from ecology to “democratic autonomy”, its call for a more decentralised local democracy and, of course, its position on the peace process. But the real political focus was expressed in the campaign itself.

The crucial questions were the peace process and the AKP’s abandonment of it, corruption within the AKP, the use of religion by the state and the HDP promise to abolish the Department of Religious Affairs.

What also helped establish perceptions of where the HDP stood was its list of candidates. In the 2007 election one MP was elected from the organised radical left on the Kurdish ticket, in 2011 two MPs were elected from the organised radical left and one independent. In 2015 the spread of candidates and of elected MPs was much wider. Four organisations of the radical left, the ESP (Socialist Party of the Oppressed), EMEP (Party of Labour), SYKP (Refoundation of Socialism Party) and YSGP (Greens and Left Future Party) had MPs elected. But the other ways in which the list was broadened were even more important. Ethnic and religious minorities were well represented among candidates and among the elected MPs. The “HDP factor” also pushed other parties into small efforts to add minority candidates to their lists of candidates. The HDP MPs include a leading Armenian activist and a number of leading Alevis. A number of independent leftists were also elected. A prominent left constitutional lawyer and academic (an ethnic Arab), and a feminist lawyer  who ran unsuccessfully as the left candidate to challenge the Kemalists’ grip on the Istanbul Bar Association. The LGBT candidates on the HDP lists were not elected.

The picture created, more important than the formal program, was of a rainbow coalition focussed on peace and religious and ethnic tolerance and opposing authoritarianism and corruption.

This is a programme for reform not revolution. The HDP effectively runs 100+ local councils within the constraints set down by the system and making the compromises that are entailed. But it is a radical reform programme that leaves open the question of how a real “democratic autonomy” can be achieved. Any attempt at the implementation of the HDP programme would evoke fierce opposition from the Turkish ruling class and the Turkish state. It would require mobilisation from below.

Many in Turkey find the comparison of Abdullah Öcalan with Nelson Mandela inappropriate. Actually Mandela was the leader of an organisation with an armed wing, he was imprisoned as a terrorist and he did not call for an end to the armed struggle until well after he was released from prison. So the comparison is not as distant as some who have still not freed themselves from the “baby murderer” propaganda of the Turkish state might think.

It is vital that the left support, fight for and campaign for the Kurds’ legitimate demand for democratic autonomy. We should welcome the fact that they have chosen to make this an inclusive demand for all the oppressed and exploited and to call for a common struggle. But we also need to develop an independent left that can seek to build on this struggle and take it forward beyond the limits of capitalism.

The election system

The Turkish election system is yet another example of the reality that attempts to fix bourgeois election systems to create “stability” can sometimes backfire. The aim of these fixes is to provide an appearance of democracy but a result that will satisfy the interests of capital. So the first past the post system in the United Kingdom, maintained for hundreds of years as a guarantee of a two party system, produced a landslide for the Scottish National Party giving them 56 of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament. In Greece the 50 seat bonus to the party with the highest number of votes introduced to bolster the two party system was precisely the provision that allowed Syriza to form a government when it came top but with only a minority of the popular vote.

The Turkish election system is in some ways a very fair system. The D’Hont system in largeish multi-member constituencies gives a good approximation to proportional representation while allowing fair treatment of independent candidates and regional parties. That is the system would be fair to regional parties except for the 10% national threshold brought in with the constitution imposed by the Generals after the 12 September 1980 military coup. This threshold was specifically designed to prevent any Kurdish party from achieving parliamentary representation as such.

However, in the very specific circumstances of the 2015 general election the 10% threshold worked  against the intentions of its creators. Once the HDP had announced its decision to stand as a party in the elections the whole arithmetic changed.

The way in which elections are conducted is a model of transparency and has its own effect on the politics of an election campaign. The votes from each ballot box are counted at the polling station  the moment the polls close. There are an average of 300 electors to each ballot box. Anyone can watch the process and party representatives sit at the table as the votes are counted one by one being held up by officials for all to see. A return is then written out for the ballot box and signed by all the representatives. A copy is posted on the door of the polling station and anyone can ask for a signed copy of the return. These returns are then taken in to election centres where they are entered into a central computer system. Results are made available electronically to all parties ballot box by ballot box. This means that any party with enough supporters to observe all the ballot boxes can make sure that no votes are stolen or added.

The ballot box by ballot box system does mean that it is possible to put pressure on villages to vote for a party that is promising a road or running water as the voting results for the village are publicly known. But the main political result that was evident in the 2015 election was the need to mobilise large numbers of people to protect the vote. This itself had an effect on the way the election was seen.

Two separate independent organisations sent observers to polling stations while the HDP mobilised tens of thousands of young people, training and equipping them with a mobile phone application that allowed them to instantly relay ballot box results and photographs of signed ballot box returns to the HDP’s own computer system. The HDP system was able to electronically check that the results being published by the Higher Election Commission were consistent with the results on the ground.

In 2015 the HDP was able to get in results from around 90,000 of the 165,000 ballot boxes. This and the fact that AKP supporters seemed less motivated and aggressive than in the past, meant that there was relatively little fraud in the election. It also meant that both for the HDP’s own campaign and for the independent campaigns of poll observers there was a campaign mobilising tens of thousands of people. They were attending meetings to learn the law and their rights. This mobilisation itself helped to motivate the vote for the HDP and create political momentum.

The question of Kemalism[2]

Kemalism has permeated the ideas of the left in Turkey. Considering this influence is essential to understanding the relationship of the left, in the broadest sense, to recent developments.

The Turkish state was built on a series of acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing that have continued until the very recent past. In the Ottoman Empire pogroms against Armenians had been used to deflect revolt and bolster the system. However, the 1908 revolution that overthrew the absolute monarchy was made by a multi-ethnic movement that united Turks, Armenians and Greeks and produced an elected parliament that included socialists and even people close to the Bolsheviks. The genocide of the Armenians in 1915 was not just a tragedy for the millions who died, it also marked the political counter revolution and an end to democracy for all ethnic groups. The regime established by Mustafa Kemal with the foundation of the republic in 1923 was a continuation of this counter revolution. Property seized from Armenians and Greeks formed an important seed capital for the creation of a new ethnically homogenous Muslim Turkish ruling class. The republic was formed after victory in the war against the British sponsored Greek invasion of 1919-1922. The backbone of the resistance was led by the “Committees for the Defence of Rights”. The rights they were defending were property rights and much property was seized. Victory for the Turkish forces led to another massive act of ethnic cleansing during the exchange of populations that saw two million Christians and Muslims forcibly transferred between Greece and Turkey.

After the foundation of the republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal established his personal dictatorship in   ways that sometimes prefigured the methods of Stalin. An alleged assassination attempt in 1925, the “İzmir Assassination”, against Mustafa Kemal himself was used as the justification for the purging and execution of a number of his peers and therefore potential rivals from the Committee of Union and Progress. The Kirov assassination in Russia in 1934 was used by Stalin as the justification for far bloodier purges – the show trials carried out by the “Independence Courts” in Turkey only executed a few thousand rather than the millions who died in Russia.

In 1927 Mustafa Kemal rewrote the history of the Turkish Revolution in the “Nutuk” or speech, originally delivered in a week long speech to the Turkish parliament. Much of it is devoted to eliminating the roles of those purged in 1925 or showing them to be fools and traitors and reducing the importance of events in which Kemal played little or no role. The revolution of 1908 disappears from official history at this point and becomes “the second constitutional period”.

With the Nutuk, Turkey acquired an official history. An obvious historical parallel is the “History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course” published on Stalin’s orders in 1938, which sought to be a definitive official history confirming Stalin’s correct role in all matters and the treacherousness of his rivals. The Nutuk is still treated as a primary source for the history of the Turkish revolution rather than as the polemic which it is.

The romanisation of the Turkish alphabet in 1928 was soon to mean that historical documents written in the old Arabic script would be inaccessible to new generations. Compulsory lessons in the official history at every level from the beginning of primary school to university created a hegemony for Mustafa Kemal’s rewriting of history.

The working class movement in the Ottoman Empire had been multi-ethnic uniting Turks and Greeks and Armenians and Jews. The 1908 revolution had been followed by a rolling general strike across the empire that paralysed the cities and the all important railways. One of Mustafa Kemal’s priorities was the destruction of the last remaining unions. In Istanbul, which was saved the ravages of war by Allied occupation, multi-ethnic unions survived. Records of arrests of strike leaders by the occupying authorities show that Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Turks were on the same strike committees. Kemal first sponsored Muslim only unions to break up this unity. Once the united unions were smashed and the Muslim only unions had outlived their usefulness they too were banned. Rank and file resistance continued underground for a while, but by the late 1920s, with the consolidation of Kemal’s one party rule, the working class movement was effectively smashed.

The process of ethnic cleansing and expropriation continued. A series of massacres of Kurds throughout the 1920s and 1930s culminated in the genocide of the Alevi Kurds of Dersim in 1937-1938. There were pogroms against Jews in Thrace in 1934, expropriating and displacing 15,000 people. During the second world war the so-called wealth tax was used to expropriate the non Muslims of Istanbul and many Jews and Greek and Armenian Christians were sent to the concentration camp at Aşkale.

Despite this in 1950 10% of the population of Istanbul were still Greek speaking Orthodox Christians. The government sponsored pogrom of 6-7 September 1955 and the forced deportations of 1963 reduced the Greek Orthodox population today to just 2000 in a city of 16 million.

Massacres in Maraş and Çorum in 1978 and 1980 killed hundreds of Alevis. Ironically, after all they have suffered at the hands of the Kemalist state, the Alevis remain an important reservoir of support for the party Mustafa Kemal founded, the CHP.

The reason the question of Kemalism is an important problem is precisely this. The myths of Kemalism are accepted to a greater or lesser degree by most people who consider themselves to be on the left (mostly CHP voters) and these ideas continue to influence to a lesser or greater degree much of the radical left.

The key ideas are Turkish nationalism cloaked as anti-imperialism, hostility to the Kurdish movement on the grounds that the Kurds are agents of imperialism and hostility to any expression of islamic religious sentiment as “backwardness”. These idea have held the left back by obstructing it from linking up oppressed groups who should be the natural allies of the left while sometimes lining the left up with its natural enemy, the Kemalist state and the Turkish Armed forces. One fairly recent and critical example was the failure of much of the left to take a clear stand against the 28 February 1997 military coup (or “ultimatum”) which brought down the government of which the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan was Prime Minister.

Selahattin Demirtaş, coming from a Kurdish tradition, made two critical observations which were to the left of what much of the radical left is saying. He said, “The fundamental reason we are against the AKP is not that they are Islamists, it is that they are capitalists”. And on another question he added about the left, “One thing holding back the left in Turkey is that they have not understood what to say or do about Islam.”


The civil war in Syria has had a deep effect on the political situation in Turkey. The Qatari and Saudi ruling classes have been using Turkey to funnel funds and weapons to their proxies in Syria.

At the same time the development of a Kurdish led movement in Syria that has attempted to break out of sectarian religious and ethnic divisions, and has achieved some striking successes, has been an important inspiration to the Kurds of Turkey and to much of the Turkish left. This movement has been largely under the political hegemony of and had substantial military assistance from the PKK, the guerilla organisation of the Kurds of Turkey.

What the PYD (What is this?) and YPG (What is this?) have achieved is the establishment of three “Cantons” of Rojova in Northern Syria along the border with Turkey. The characteristic of these areas, which are ethnically mixed, is that the administration there includes people of all ethnicities and faiths, both men and women and is based on “self administration” which guarantees the rights of all groups (and of women). This is in contrast to much of the rest of Syria where an opposition to the dictator Assad was destroyed by fostering ethnic and religious divisions. This drive to division has been a deliberate tool both of the Assad regime and of the Saudi and Qatari financed jihadi opposition groups.

The multi-ethnic experiment in Rojova cannot be separated from the rainbow politics of the HDP. The 80 MPs elected on the HDP ticket represent most of the faith and ethnic groups in Turkey, with a profile that elected a high proportion of non Kurdish non Sunni candidates despite the fact that the core electoral base of the HDP is composed of Sunni Kurds. The same terminology is used and the political inspiration is the same – from the leadership of the PKK and Abdullah Öcalan.

The idea that Kurds cannot solve the Kurdish problem on their own and that they need to ally with other oppressed and exploited groups in Turkey is gaining ground among Kurds. The idea is being propagated by the leadership of the PKK and in particular by Abdullah Öcalan. This does not mean that this approach to the struggle has been accepted fully by the whole Kurdish constituency. There is a process of persuasion, and acceptance is far from automatic. Some Kurds in Turkey look toward the Barzani regime in Northern Iraq. Others understandably do not want to trust the Turkish left (which is crippled by kemalism directly or indirectly) and want to pursue an “ourselves alone” policy where Kurds make alliances purely on the basis of Kurdish national interests.

There is a considerable difference between the traditions of the Kurds of Turkey, particularly the PKK tradition, and that of the Barzani led Kurds of Iraq. Three generations of Barzanis have sought alliances with external powers or the regime in Baghdad to pursue their interests. Often this has led to disaster and death for the Kurds of Iraq. The relationship between the Turkish state and the Kurds  of Iraq has blown hot and cold, but often the Kurds have been used by Ankara as pawns against the Kurds of Turkey. It was significant that when the Turkish state was under pressure to allow Kurds to move through Turkish territory to relieve the canton of Kobane under attack from the DAİŞ (ISIS), they only did so on the condition that forces from Northern Iraq were involved. Iraqi Kurdistan is now a back garden for Turkish capital. The shops are full of Turkish goods and the building boom is benefitting Turkish contractors.

The social experiment in the cantons of Rojova represents a threat to all the forces in the area that base their politics on ethnic and religious division. Rojova is seen as a beacon of hope by the Kurds in Turkey. Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Ezidis are living together in peace. When Kobane was under attack and President Erdoğan said with evident satisfaction, “What’s all this fuss about Kobane? Kobane will fall any moment” Kurds reacted by going onto the streets. Islamist gangs of Hüda-Par, associated in the past with the deep state, were encouraged to attack and the result was 50 dead in the two days 6 and 7 October 2014.

These events are an indication of how closely developments in Turkey are linked to those in Syria and the ever present danger of the sectarian conflicts of Syria spilling over into Turkey.

There is overwhelming evidence of Turkish state complicity in arming El Nusra and the Islamic State and providing them with free passage across the border and havens on Turkish territory. Social media abound with videos shot from the Turkish side of the border recording the traffic of arms and people. The only question is the degree to which this is directly authorised by the political leadership or whether some of these action are autonomous actions of the “deep state”.

Further evidence of Turkish state complicity in arming jihadists in Syria came with the incident of the “MIT artics” in January 2014. In two separate incidents prosecutors in the border area ordered the gendarmerie to stop and search convoys of articulated lorries heading for the border. The lorries turned out to be under orders from MIT (the state intelligence agency) and full of weapons. Within a short time the lorries were on their way and the prosecutors and several gendarmes were in prison. Arrests of anyone concerned with giving information about the lorries were still continuing early this year. President Erdoğan said of the affair, “Maybe there were weapons on the lorries, maybe not. Any weapons were going to the Turkmens in Syria”. The leadership of the Turkmen community in Syria vigorously deny that they have received any weapons from Turkey. As Alevis (and therefore apostates) they have been the target of particularly vicious massacres by the DAİŞ.

The shift in the perception of PYD/YPG forces in Syria is not limited to the Coalition Forces (Who?) whose military spokespeople have praised the PYD/YPG forces fighting ability, though it should be noted that the coalition have refused to arm the PYD/YPG because of Ankara’s sensitivity to this force which is under the political influence of the PKK. The fact that the PYD /YPG are fighting the DAİŞ and winning victories against them has influenced the Turkish left. Some radical left wingers have volunteered to fight, though their lack of military experience means that the casualty rate among them is high. So radical Turkish leftists, for whom the US is the Great Satan, are fighting in battles where bombs dropped from US warplanes are sometimes helping them win. This contradiction is a contradiction in reality, but one pregnant with dangers. In the long run the allied interventions will be disastrous for the opposition in Syria, potentially strengthening support for the regime in some places and for the jihadists in others.

For the left in Turkey this not a struggle “in a country far away”. The fighting is 100 metres away just over the border. Many relatives of the Kurds in Turkey live across the border, there are two million Syrian refugees in Turkey and DAİŞ is recruiting and organising in Turkey. The risk that the war will spill over onto the streets of Turkey is ever present.

The workers’ movement

A significant strike movement took place in the last few weeks of the election campaign. It raises important questions for the future of the left and the movement.

Trade Unions and the Trade Union Law

From the very beginning of and even before the establishment of the Republic, the Turkish ruling class has paid a great deal of attention to controlling and incorporating the trade union bureaucracy. The trade union law passed by the unelected “parliament” created by the 1980 military coup has now been replaced but the essential direction and structure of the law remains. Its aim is to make unionisation difficult and where it succeeds to ensure that the trade union bureaucracy is tied more closely to the employers than to the rank and file members. The law forces each union to organise in only one of the particular industrial sectors as stipulated by law. The only way to become a union member is through an internet portal controlled by the ministry of labour. This ensures that workers can only apply for membership of a union if social security records show that the worker is employed, and the unions offered to the worker are those registered by the state for that industrial sector. Only unions which have passed a percentage threshold for membership in a particular industrial sector are entitled to conclude collective contracts. This threshold is currently 1%, but is set to rise to 3%. To apply for union recognition in a workplace the union must pass the national threshold and more than 40% of employees must be members according to the records kept on the Ministry of Labour’s computer system. Union subs are, by law, deducted at source by check-off, and the maximum (in practice usually this is the actual level) is set at one day’s pay a month. This is very high by international standards. A worker in the United Auto Workers in the US pays 2.5 hours a month. A member of a union in the UK pays around 1.2% of the UK minimum wage, and unionised workers will generally be earning more than the minimum wage. So union members in Turkey are paying, as a proportion of wages, three times or more as much as workers in the US or UK. On the other hand, union members without collective agreements generally pay nothing. A workplace representative is appointed by the union not elected. Attempts to informally run unions more democratically fall foul of a legal system that puts the legal responsibility for decisions on the officials and holds them to account personally.

The Turkish working class has a proud history of revolt. The great mass strike of 15-16 June 1970, described as a “communist insurrection” by the prime minister of the time, Süleyman Demirel. Unofficial actions by workers in the spring of 1989 broke the great silence that followed the 1980 military coup. During the 1990s, while civil servants were banned from union membership, a union of civil servants with 600,000 members was built against remorseless repression and succeeded in forcing the legalisation of union membership.

However, the union laws have been repeatedly used to blunt and incorporate that militant resistance.

The first weapon against union organisation is the use of arbitrary changes of industrial sector to invalidate union membership. This can be done by employers lodging formal objections to the classification of workers or simply behind the scenes shenanigans in the Ministry of Labour. Figures for both the number of employees and membership are easily manipulated to put unions below one or both thresholds. Transport workers in a pharmaceutical company can be reclassified from the pharmaceutical sector to the transport sector at the stroke of a pen. More insidious are the legal provisions that limit democracy and corrupt trade union officials. The very high subscription levels mean that even a small number of unionised workers on relatively low wages can finance a well paid bureaucracy. The union laws are also used to strengthen unions close to the government by giving them spurious membership or employers forcing membership on workers to bring them over the thresholds.

All of this makes the outbreak of struggle from below in the automotive industry that took place during the last month of the election campaign all the more remarkable.

Bursa is a centre of the automotive industry in Turkey. Historically the automotive industry has been well organised and relatively well paid. Sweetheart deals by a right wing controlled union, Türk Metal, have eroded both pay and conditions. A new collective agreement at a Bosch factory gave better terms than a previously concluded agreement at Renault. This triggered a wave of anger among Renault workers. Extraordinarily, they walked out despite their newly signed three year collective agreement, occupied the grounds of the factory demanding that they get the same terms as Bosch and that the Türk Metal union should be thrown out.

This action was in direct breach of the labour and trade union law, but the workers were strong enough and united enough to prevent immediate victimisations and prosecutions. The action spread to other factories in Bursa then to automotive sector factories in Ankara. The Renault factory is 49% owned by OYAK, which is effectively the investment arm of the Turkish Armed Forces, and is the largest Renault plant outside Western Europe.

There was panic from the government and Tayyip Erdoğan met the leaders of Türk Metal. The AKP in power has devoted as much effort to controlling and subsuming the trade union movement as every government of the republic since it was founded. The occupations were infiltrated by plain clothes police who conducted a whispering campaign against “communist agitators”. Strike leaders were harassed by repeatedly being taken off to the police station to “make a statement” then released without charge.

They could not stop the workers resigning from Türk Metal and imposing direct negotiations with elected representatives of the workforce. The first reaction of MESS (Metal Industry Employers Association) was to threaten that only if the workers gave up their struggle immediately would there be no sackings. When this failed to get the workers back to work, MESS started to offer one off cash payments to return to work. These payments are being made by the employers’ association, not the individual employer, an interesting piece of ruling class solidarity. This was stepped up to a series of payments and eventually factories returned to work one by one. The struggle is not over. The question of union organisation is not resolved and workers are still pushing to get extra money added to their hourly wages. Union Law does not allow factory based organisations to make collective agreements.  Workers in one of the factories have reacted to this by transferring to Çelik İş, a union that is part of the Islamist trade union federation, Hak-İş. The wave of victimisations now spreading across the factories will test this union’s willingness to lead its new members in a fight.

This extraordinary outburst of class anger was overshadowed by the election campaign and failed to get the attention it would have done at any other time.

There are also strikes in other sectors and the fate of this automotive sector uprising will have an important impact on the morale of organised labour. The challenge for the left is finding ways to relate to these workers who are breaking with the trade union bureaucracy and setting up factory committees, but whose political ideas are still those of the right and Islamists.


The struggle in Turkey is at a crossroads. The election campaign has done far more than put some leftists in parliament who could not have got there under their own steam. It has also marked another important step on the path to freeing the Turkish left from its Kemalist inheritance. Taboos have been weakened.

The HDP campaign has shown that it is possible to take a radical message to a much broader audience than the left has managed to reach in the past. The left needs to learn from this experience, give credit to the help they have received from the Kurdish movement and build on it.

To achieve this we need to give our full support to the Kurdish movement’s legitimate demands. But the left and socialists also need to develop their own organisation and their own politics to take this struggle forward into the struggle against the capitalist system itself.

[1]     In 2011 the vote was for joint independent candidates, so the comparison is not strictly like with like and tends to overstate the real rise in the HDP vote somewhat.

[2]     This is a very short summary of a much longer analysis to be found in “Kemalizm Sol Değil” (Istanbul 2004), published in English as “The Making of the Turkish Revolution”.