Expect the unexpected
A combination of working class discontent and Kurdish initiative produced a setback for Erdoğan, writes Esen Uslu. But that is not the end of the matter
Turkey is no longer a dark space, about which the British public occasionally gets scraps of information - it has become a centre of news fed by correspondents and journalists based there. The war in Syria and Iraq - especially the campaign against Islamic State and also the Kurdish freedom movement - has brought the spotlight onto Turkey.
Perhaps because of this new interest, the local election campaign was also followed closely by the British press. So what can I add to the better informed British left on Turkey’s local elections? Maybe a few insights obscured by the fast-flowing news, and a couple of thoughts about the struggle ahead.
But, first of all, a reminder about the overall political situation. The dictatorial ‘presidential’ regime around Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has during the last decade been built not only by his own party, but also by the real ‘owners’ of the state and ‘masters of the nation’ - the top military brass and the security apparatus. The current regime was the panacea solution to the never-ending desire to achieve ‘stability’: a strong executive bordering on one-man rule, without the hindrance of genuine parliamentary scrutiny or restrictions imposed on expenditure and taxation, with a semblance of ‘democracy’, based on two parties competing in sham elections.
That aim and broad plan have not changed since the time of Kemal Pasha in the early 20th century - maybe even earlier. But, of course, whenever circumstances have allowed a semblance of popular consent, that is seized upon through what passes for ‘democracy’. However, such disguises are frequently discarded, and the brazenness of military dictatorship reappears - as has happened at regular intervals of around 10 years since 1960, including the clearest example in 1980 with an outright coup.
Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have managed to produce that semblance of popular consent for a regime of ever-growing despotism - especially after 2013, the time of the Gezi Park demonstrations. The AKP did well in elections after attempts to resolve the ‘Kurdish question’ through negotiations were replaced by a sustained expeditionary campaign.
The overall result of the local elections indicates to me that the capability of Erdoğan and the AKP coalition with the far-right MHP (National Movement Party) to obtain popular consent has reached its limits - or at least is coming very close to it in the urban centres. However, the overall result shows that the rural population of the provinces of central and eastern Anatolia, as well as the Black Sea coast, are still under the spell of the glory of Islam, combined with a nationalistic fervour.
But, when it comes to the main cities, Erdoğan has well and truly lost his appeal - especially in ‘unruly’ working class neighbourhoods, where Alevis and Kurds live together. Here Erdoğan’s Teflon has started to peel off, and he is no longer able to obtain the tacit consent of the population. He could be starting to lose his usability, as far as his masters are concerned.
This outcome was anticipated not only by the left and the Kurdish freedom movement, but also by the top military brass and security apparatus. The 2016 attempted coup was the herald of things to come. At the same time as helping Erdoğan to reshape his own party, the apparatus had been strengthening its hold on the armed forces and the police.
And now the AKP is held in an armlock by the nationalist-Islamist MHP - the remnants of the original ‘grey wolves’ - in the two-party coalition. As the AKP lost its ability to win any election alone, the coalition has been acting almost as a single political entity. Despite some difficulty in enmeshing their gears initially, things were running quite smoothly until the local elections.
Meanwhile, the loyal opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was also brought under control through another forced marriage - with a different nationalist-Islamist, rightwing organisation called the İyi Party (Good Party). This was a spin-off from the MHP led by Meral Akşener - an ‘iron lady’ who used to be minister of the interior during the darkest days of the dirty war in Kurdistan in the early 90s.
Despite the enhanced appetite of the petty bourgeois left - for all its anti-imperialism marred with nationalism - to march together with the CHP against the regime, that party has proved to be a docile opposition to Erdoğan and his government, incapable of threatening the real basis of his power. Because the CHP never dared cooperate with the Kurdish freedom movement, it never had a chance of toppling the government. It remains a puppet opposition, playing to the anti-Sunni prejudices of the Alevis and the anti-clerical aspirations of the secular middle classes.
So, while the loyal opposition remained deaf and blind to the Kurdish freedom movement’s appeals, the latter decided to use its vote tactically by adopting a two-pronged policy. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) nominated candidates to stand where the regime had summarily dismissed its elected local officials and appointed trustees to run municipalities. Most of the Kurdish towns and cities are under such rule, while many members of the HDP have been jailed - those remaining free to take part in the local elections have been regularly detained and otherwise harassed.
But the HDP decided not to run any candidates where the loyal opposition had a chance of winning, especially in the urban centres of western Turkey. It asked its supporters to vote for the CHP-İyi coalition despite the gut feeling of misgiving felt by its voter base - the hatred among Kurds for both İyi and the CHP is palpable, and adopting such a policy despite those feelings required a great trust between the freedom movement and its voters. However, the tactic was very successful and it was a major factor in the toppling of the AKP in a series of principal cities, which had been under Erdoğan’s control for such a long time.
This HDP tactic was adopted without asking any support from the CHP, but the İyi Party spitefully stood candidates in cities where both the HDP and MHP were contesting mayoral elections. In retaliation the HDP then stood candidates wherever İyi was standing alone in the mayoral elections. The outcome was not surprising: the HDP won every mayoralty contested against the MHP, and İyi failed to win a single mayoral election.
As the Turkish economy began to show some vibrancy over the last two decades, expansionist and revanchist urges started throbbing again. Turkey’s overt and covert involvement in the Syrian war provided ample opportunities - Turkey invaded two Syrian provinces and established several observation posts in a third.
While it was unable to stop the Kurdish freedom movement liberating Syrian Kurdistan, Turkey advertised its readiness to wage a proxy war on behalf of the USA against IS, provided it stopped supplying the Kurds. But the US and its allies quietly intimated that, while Turkey was unable to deal with its own domestic problems, having such ambitions overseas were beyond its capabilities. Following this, the regime launched a sustained, brutal campaign against the Kurdish population in south-eastern Turkey. City centres were razed to the ground and the population was forcibly moved.
The HDP was suppressed, and its organisation in the western urban centres was put under great pressure too. At the same time a campaign was undertaken by the regime to silence all opposition. Academics, journalists and authors were gagged, and every opposition organisation was suppressed.
Meanwhile, the Turkish grip on the newly acquired lands in Syria has been consolidated by installing a puppet administration, while maintaining a large military presence there. However, the consequences of such suppression and the massive expenditure undertaken to wage war against the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq has had its impact on the economy and consequently on local elections.
And, with Turkey embroiled in the labyrinth of the Middle East, waging such costly campaigns, friends and foes have started to reconsider their attitude. Turkey’s former regional rivals, Russia and Iran, started to play an important role in aiding Turkey’s moves in the region.
Its previous forays had brought it closer to Israel and Egypt, but under rapidly changing circumstances Netanyahu’s Israel and Sisi’s Egypt suddenly changed their attitude, trying to curb Turkey’s involvement in Syria. The recent discovery of natural gas fields south of Cyprus, close to those previously discovered within the Israeli zone of the Mediterranean and the fully operational gas field in the Egyptian zone, has helped create a new alignment. Under the auspices of the US, Cyprus and Greece formed a new grouping with Egypt and Israel in opposition to Turkish claims over the Mediterranean.
Turkey responded by sabre-rattling. It held its largest ever naval exercise, involving almost all of its available ships and aviation. However, while such a show of force may have been influential in terms of domestic popularity, it was no more effective than a damp cloth in the face of rival naval forces operating in the Mediterranean.
The deteriorating relations with the US and Nato became apparent after Turkey decided to purchase an air defence missile system from Russia. It was portrayed domestically as a great achievement for the nation, but the US retaliated by stopping the sale of F35 jets, despite the fact that Turkey had been geared up to supply components for the project from the start. Turkey’s military-industrial complex has flourished over recent decades, thanks to vast investments in the production of small arms and ammunition, rockets, armoured vehicles, warships, helicopters and even military planes, with associated radar, optical sensors, communications equipment and other electronics. However, compared to the competition, it is still a dwarf.
As many other powers have learned through bitter experience, the accelerated development of a military-industrial complex tends to ruin the state budget. In Turkey such development, combined with expansionist ambitions, brought things to the verge of insolvency once again.
And at the end of the day, as the old adage goes, nothing but the empty pot in the kitchen topples a government: the crippled economy was the main factor behind the dismal performance of Erdoğan’s coalition - and its shadowy masters. However, the regime will not meekly accept this setback. As always in Turkey, we should expect the unexpected (and suspect the unsuspected), because the regime has control over the judiciary as well as the media, and will attempt to thwart the outcome by all manner of means.