Recep Erdoğan: constitution in his sights

Rigged election of a sham democracy

Esen Uslu charts the AKP’s growing authoritarianism and the left’s disappointment

Following the November 1 general election, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a parliamentary majority after picking up almost half of the popular vote. The outcome came as a surprise to many commentators, as well as most of Turkey’s left, who were expecting the opposition to win enough votes to force the AKP into forming a coalition with one of the smaller parties. It is difficult to quantify the left’s disappointment - it is widely felt that this was a chance missed and another will not be forthcoming any time soon.

Mainstream media companies had been asked to make a substantial ‘voluntary’ contribution to an illicit AKP fund in return for maintaining their broadcasting rights and access to governmental contracts, and this arrangement had a substantial effect on the conduct of the election. Such a role for the media is customary in Turkey and on this occasion the media barrage was so strong that the election seemed to be settled by 10pm, when polls closed. Almost immediately opposition leaders were on TV conceding defeat.

What is more, there were widespread allegations of irregularities, of which there are many statistical breakdowns available on the net, not least that of Erik Meyersson of the Stockholm School of Economics. He claims his analysis shows “evidence that would be consistent with widespread voting manipulation”, but “not proof of it”.1 However, we must look deeper than the picture of rigged election results to grasp the important fault lines in Turkish politics.

The leftwing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) just avoided falling below the prohibitive 10% threshold for parliamentary representation, thanks to the votes cast abroad, and it managed to retain a toehold in parliament. At least now the HDP will be present to witness AKP efforts to change the constitution in an attempt to enhance the powers of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But his party did not win sufficient seats to change the constitution on its own, and will need 15-20 votes from other parties.

Now the third largest group in the parliament, the HDP will attempt to follow the approach of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), comrade Abdullah Öcalan: that of attempting to bring the Kurdish question into mainstream Turkish politics by making the HDP the champion of democracy for the whole of Turkey. Such a strategy could make it the main opposition party, provided that its young and popular co-leaders undertake the substantial task of redrafting the HDP programme and rules, while maintaining the support of the Kurdish freedom movement.

The opportunity is still there, since the other opposition parties appear to be in a rut. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) more or less maintained its 25% share of the vote, but seems to have reached its limit under its current leadership. Meanwhile, the nationalist-fascist National Action Party (MHP) lost substantial ground and now has fewer seats than the HDP. This promoter of the “synthesis of Turkishness and Islam” had the mantle of Turkish nationalism stolen from it by the AKP’s war against the Kurds, its promotion of Islam and its support from the army. We should expect the MHP to split, with a small section moving towards the CHP, while the rump dissolves itself into the AKP.

However, the Alevis, one the principal mass supporters of the secular-nationalist CHP, would not be happy with the participation of the MHP, a party associated with the Alevi massacres of the 1970s and 80s. The HDP has made modest inroads into the Alevi community, but now there are opportunities for it to reach out to them, provided it develops a secular-democratic programme, as well as grassroots organisation amongst the Alevis.


After the elections most political commentators declined to explain how and why their predictions had been so inaccurate. Indeed, their whole approach served to whitewash the rigged elections, and to prepare public opinion for a new five-year term for the revitalised AKP.

Even the long awaited Progress report of the European Commission, which was delayed on the request of AKP government and released after the elections, joins in the whitewash:

A government could not be formed by the constitutional deadline and repeat elections took place on November 1, again with a very high turnout of 85%. Reported results show that the AKP obtained 49.5% (317 seats), CHP 25.3% (134 seats), MHP 11.9% (40 seats) and HDP 10.8 % (59 seats). The ruling AKP secured enough votes to form a majority government. The atmosphere of the campaign was affected by a challenging security environment, in particular the terrorist bomb attack in Ankara on October 10. There were the increased tensions across the country, which included attacks on media outlets and on party members, offices and campaign staff. According to international observers, citizens could choose between genuine and diverse political alternatives. However, the campaign environment limited the ability to campaign freely and media freedom was an area of serious concern.2

Please note, the ‘results’ quoted above were those given by the so-called ‘pool media’, since the electoral commission has yet to declare precise official figures.

A common theme in many commentaries was ‘blame the Kurds’ for election results deemed disastrous for the opposition. Such analysis was accompanied by other gems of wisdom, such as the claim that public opinion had shifted to the ‘centre’ away from ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ policies, or that the unexpected and unexplained 9% swing towards the AKP in the five-month period from June to November was actually a reflection of the desire of working people for ‘stability’ following the June elections.

Meanwhile, the Fatherland Party - the ex-Maoists turned ultra-nationalists - reached a new low by claiming that it now stands shoulder to shoulder with the AKP, defending national unity against separatism. The rump of the recently split legal Communist Party reminded us that they had warned the left not to blindly go down the road of Kurdish nationalism by supporting the HDP and instead to fight for a “class-based platform”.

The June Movement, a broad-based joint action grouping taking its name from the Gezi Park resistance of June 2013, has tried to paper over the cracks in its structures caused by not participating in the HDP election campaign, but it has been unable to control its rank and file, whose members did support that campaign despite the vicious attacks from the state and AKP thugs. Their spokespersons repeat the same old call for joint action on a new socialist platform: ie, the formation of a separate and rival ‘socialist’ grouping with no room for those ‘nationalist’ Kurds.

The election campaign of the AKP was actually run on the end of Turkish bayonets. The party had realised that donning nationalistic colours would not be enough to recover the ground it lost in the June elections. It had already ended negotiations with the Kurdish freedom movement, but now it persuaded the top brass to adopt a new course. From mid-July onwards the AKP government unleashed a brutal war on the Kurds within Turkey and against their bases in the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan.

There were so many air raids that the government had to ask the US for permission to urgently renew its stock of weapons. Such permission was duly granted after the Incirlik air base facility was opened up to US forces for operations in Syria and Iraq. The state orchestrated attacks on HDP offices across Turkey. It even directed - or at least turned a blind eye to - Islamic State-trained, home-grown bombers, who committed two major atrocities. After the October 10 Ankara massacre no opposition party dared hold election rallies.

The government also ordered attacks on Rojava: liberated Syrian Kurdistan. They were accompanied by propaganda, as well as lobbying in diplomatic circles, to curb any support for the Rojava Kurds.

The army, gendarmerie and police special forces conducted ‘counter-insurgency’ raids in all the principal towns and cities of south-eastern Turkey. Using the powers granted to governors and administrators, curfews lasting more than a week were declared in various areas.

Unwinnable war

Now the election is over, it is time once again to move against the Kurds. The military, invited into politics once more by the AKP government, is adamant that it can win the war in Kurdistan. Its public statements, echoed by the minister of defence and prime minister, talk about “going to the bitter end” and “doing whatever is necessary”.

However, several former chiefs of staff have publicly stated that the war in Kurdistan is not winnable and a political settlement based on negotiations is inevitable. So either the current top brass will eventually reach the same conclusion after an orgy of death and destruction or, if international circumstances permit, they will commit atrocities the like of which we have not seen for years.

For example, in the town of Cizre more than 20 people, including children, were killed indiscriminately over a period of a week. Armoured carriers, which have become the normal mode of transport for security forces as well as officialdom, were insufficient to deal with the resistance and now battle tanks have been deployed in cities and towns.

As I write these words, the town of Silvan in Diyarbakır province has been under sustained attack for eight days, with no end in sight. The new government is yet to be formed, but as well as military action conciliatory noises have been heard from amongst the AKP ranks. They seem to want to open new negotiations from a position of strength, having isolated and excluded the HDP.

During the campaign the AKP stole the economic proposals successfully put forward by the CHP during the June elections. At that time the AKP shunned popular proposals, such as increasing the minimum wage and reducing the tax on it, and increasing pensions, claiming there were insufficient resources. However, the popularity of the proposals compelled the AKP to adopt them, and firm commitments were made to implement such measures immediately after the elections.

Contradictory messages are coming from the AKP parliamentary group. A section favours the ‘financial discipline’ imposed by the International Monetary Fund and wants to delay any relaxation, claiming that such discipline had already been breached by pre-election spending. Others, with an eye on a constitutional referendum, which may happen next year, insist that election pledges had to be kept.

Meanwhile the economy as a whole is in trouble: growth has slowed, exports have fallen, wages are not keeping up with inflation, unemployment has crept above 10%, interest rates are on the rise, the Turkish lira is losing ground to the main international currencies and the current account and balance of payments deficits are growing.

All this is a recipe for disaster, and every suggested remedy has its pitfalls. If austerity measures are implemented, popular support will begin to evaporate, and if the option of increasing public spending to prevent a crisis is adopted, then substantial financial assistance from abroad will be required.

Given the experience of last year’s strikes in the automotive and other metal-working sectors, there is wariness in the AKP government of an upsurge in discontent that might fuel wildcat strikes in the industrial heartlands. AKP is happy to use repression - so long as it maintains the support of the army. However, that is not sufficient to govern. It has to find solutions to the many domestic problems, or at least a means of relieving the pressure.

The repression of each and every opposition movement, as well as civil initiatives for fundamental rights, continues unabated. Freedom of the press, freedom to organise and freedom of conscience are denied. At the same time there is close collaboration between finance capital and state officialdom. Examples of corruption are skyrocketing. The Kurdish and Syrian wars provide ample opportunities to maintain such authoritarian rule.

Turkey is also using the Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip with the European Union. Whenever it could, it illegally and ruthlessly sent them on to EU countries. Throughout the summer months under the eyes of the Turkish security forces countless rickety boats departed on the perilous journey to the Greek islands. Rescue operations and dead children became a staple international news item.

And it worked. In the end German chancellor Angela Merkel came to Turkey and posed on the glittering seats of the old sultan’s palace alongside Erdoğan, bolstering his image just before the election. Support and aid was promised in return for keeping the refugees in Turkey.

So now Turkey has another exportable commodity: migrants. And the AKP government is using it as shamelessly as a bazaar trader.


1. http://erikmeyersson.com/2015/11/04/digit-tests-and-the-peculiar-election-dynamics-of-turkeys-november-elections.

2. ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2015/20151110_report_turkey.pdf.