The victory of the ruling AK Party in Turkey’s parliamentary elections on November 1st was an important step on an increasingly dictatorial path. Having lost its majority in last June?s elections, AK Party leader President Erdogan was unwilling to accept the verdict of the people and allow a coalition government to be formed. Instead, he instructed his puppet Prime Minster Davuto?lu to perform an elaborate charade in which discussions were held with each of the opposition parties. This was supposedly to examine the possibilities of a coalition government but was really only to provide time for an alternative strategy to be put in place.
In this, the Government was most fortunately assisted by the decision of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the right-wing Turkish nationalist party, the MHP, to refuse again and again to enter any coalition government, either with the opposition parties or the AK Party regime. This strange position has led Bahceli to become known as ?Mr No?, a position that has caused some speculation that the ruling Party has done a secret deal with him or has some hold over him through blackmail or some other means.
In any case, Erdogan?s reason for delay in forming a government soon became clear with the deadly unleashing of a civil war against the Kurdish opposition movement leading up to a rerun of the elections in an atmosphere of nationalist fervour and terror. A strategy that clearly worked in stampeding a section of voters to return back to the ruling party. Of course, playing the nationalist card in order to whip up the population?s support is hardly an original tactic. Indeed, it?s a favourite trick of most authoritarian regimes desperate to get out of a bind. As an 18th Century British diarist once put it: ?Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel?.
Naturally, to make such a tactic work it is vital to have command of the means of communication with the masses. Otherwise, an alternative interpretation of developments might be presented to them which would undermine the whole strategy. In this case, it was vital for the majority of the population not to understand that the civil war with the Kurdish PKK was an unnecessary conflict provoked by the Government in order to frighten people and win back their support.
To avoid such an outcome, President Erdogan has been systematically taking control of the majority of the mass media in recent years beginning first with state television and then private TV channels and newspapers. To this end, Erdogan has used business deals to secure the increasing loyalty and obedience of the privately owned media ? making it a condition of the award of large and lucrative government contracts to various businessmen that they take over media outlets and run them on the ruling party?s behalf. The exact mechanism for this was clearly revealed in the recordings of telephone conversations between Erdogan and various businessmen revealed in the huge December 2013 corruption scandal.
Where business deals are not on offer, the ruling party opts for other methods of control, imitating the methods of Russia?s President Putin and using court actions against editors and journalists, or organising exhaustive tax inspections and so on. This step by step extinguishing of critical voices has been speeded up with last month?s invasion of two opposition TV Channels along with two daily newspapers and their forcible transfer into pro-government mouthpieces. Only on this occasion it was recorded live on TV. Other opposition media channels are now awaiting their turn for the executioners block.
The Turkish government?s crackdown is also being felt in social media – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are regularly blocked and many individuals who dared to criticise the government in their social media accounts have been arrested and imprisoned, usually on charges of ?insulting the President? or on the catchall of helping to foment ?terrorism.?
Turkey may continue to hold elections but if all critical voices are silenced then such elections will no longer offer any opportunity to change things or to hold the government to account. For example, in this latest election, only the ruling party was allowed time on the state and pro-government media with the opposition frozen out. This was also evident on the street with pro-government posters outnumbering all the opposition ten to one.
The Anti-Kurdish Civil War
In order to regain its majority in these elections, President Erdogan and his circle devised a cynical strategy based on provoking the outbreak of a civil war with the armed Kurdish left nationalist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and cloaking itself in the mantle of Turkish nationalism. On the 23rd of July the Turkish government seized on the murder of two policemen (which the PKK denied involvement in and may have been organised by government agent-provocateurs), in order to justify ending the peace process with the PKK. The very next day the government launched airstrikes against the PKK?s bases in Northern Iraq along with air attacks on ISIS in Syria. Simultaneously, a Turkish-wide crackdown in Kurdish areas was organised involving the use of armed cars, tanks and special forces in scores of Eastern Turkish cities. Given that the airstrikes had been previously agreed with NATO this was clearly an operation that had been carefully planned for some time and had nothing to do with the murder of the two policemen.
The PKK responded to the attacks on its forces and a civil war erupted in Eastern Turkey which has led to thousands of deaths including hundreds of soldiers and police. Large scale arrests have been taking place, and long curfews imposed causing great hardship on the Kurdish population. Despite supposedly being an anti-terrorist operation the Turkish armed forces have clearly been waging a campaign of terror against the civil population. This even included an army vehicle dragging the dead body of 24-year-old actor Haci Lokman Birlik, the brother-in-law of a member of parliament, through the streets of Sirnak in South Eastern Turkey ? a video of which was proudly posted online by members of the security forces.
The Government?s callous and inhumane civil war strategy was specifically designed to undermine two of the three opposition parties: the right-wing Turkish nationalist MHP, and the left-wing Peoples? Democratic Party (HDP).
The ruling AKP had for decades criticised Turkey?s Kemalist elite for its pro-Turkish nationalist position and brutal military campaigns against the PKK. But now it has turned 360 degrees and adopted the self-same approach. In doing so it has directly taken up the right-wing nationalist MHP?s political platform with the aim of undermining the Party?s support. As a useful by-product it succeeded in winning over some important MHP activists including Tu?rul Türkeş, the son of the MHP?s founder, who not only joined AK Party but also was appointed Deputy Prime Minster into the bargain. All of this was done in order to win over a large chunk of the right-wing nationalist MHP?s supporters, something that it successfully achieved in the November 1st elections ? the MHP losing 26% of its nationalist vote to the AK Party.
The other target, the left-wing HDP, was viewed by Erdogan as even more of threat. Having succeeded in overcoming the undemocratic 10% minimum barrier and entering the parliament in June with 80 MPs, HDP had thus managed to establish itself as a credible openly socialist opposition party, the first of its kind since the 1970s. Drawing the majority of its support from Kurdish voters but also appealing to the Turkish left, HDP had the potential to undermine the AK Party?s future appeal not only to Kurds but also to its support among the poor throughout the country.
Of even more importance in the short term, HDP?s success in entering parliament was the main stumbling block stopping President Erdogan from achieving his dream of altering the Turkish constitution and changing Turkey from a parliamentary system with a largely ceremonial President, to a setup in which the Presidential holds the main powers. Because the bulk of HDP?s votes had come from the Kurdish areas where their main rival is the AKP, if they had failed to overcome the 10% threshhold it would have meant almost all their votes being reallocated to the AKP giving them the two thirds majority in parliament they needed to introduce the executive presidency they wanted. Preventing HDP getting the 10% in the next election became the key priority of Erdogan and his ruling circle.
But how to cut HDP down to size? The Kurdish issue was the obvious answer. HDP has an achilles heel which AK Party?s artificial civil war was designed to target. Despite HDP?s makeup as an umbrella party incorporating a range of socialist organisations (something similar to SYRIZA in Greece), the party is still seen as linked to the PKK Kurdish armed movement. It has tried to repeatedly emphasise its desire for peaceful struggle rather than military campaigns, but it cannot make a complete break with the PKK without risking the loss of its core support among left-wing Kurds, and creating the possibility of a rival pro-PKK party arising if it did so. It was this contradiction that Erdogan counted on and sought to exploit in the most bloody way, all the while labelling HDP as ?a terrorist party? and thus trying to frighten a section of its newly found supporters.
Once again, the AK party?s strategy worked, up to a point. In the November 1st election HDP lost 18% of its votes including a section of Kurdish supporters. But it still managed to clear the 10% ?barrage? and get back into parliament with 60 seats thus preventing AK Party from gaining the two thirds it needed to bring in the new executive presidency system.
The Role of Islamic State (ISIS)
A new factor that has entered the Turkish political scene is the role of ISIS and its relationship with the Turkish government. President Erdogan has long followed a policy of seeking to overthrow Syria?s Assad government and replace it with a pro-Sunni regime along similar lines to its own in Turkey. Integral to this strategy has been the provision of practical support to the islamic military groups fighting Assad, including supplying them with arms and allowing them to use Turkey as a safe passage way for new recruits both from Turkey and other countries. As long as they were willing to fight against Assad Erdogan seemed happy enough to support any of the fundamentalist islamic groups no matter how savage and reactionary they were.
When ISIS first emerged onto the scene it was just another one of the opposition Syrian groups supported by Ankara. However, its spectacular success in Iraq and then in Syria provided the group with a massive amount of captured military hardware and large amounts of cash; plus control of the output of a series of oilfields with a huge potential revenue from sale of the oil. From all accounts, Turkey has become the main unofficial market for ISIS?s oil taking 85% of its output ? convoys of tankers can apparently be seen taking the stuff to the Turkish border. Another way that Turkey has helped ISIS grow into the monster it is today is to turn a blind eye to the thousands of foreign recruits being ferried across the country from Istanbul to Gaziantep and then into Syria. These recruits have included a large number of Turkish youth.
As has now been revealed in the mass media here, all of this has been closely monitored by MIT, the Turkish intelligence service, and its government masters. But monitoring may not have been the limit of the Turkish involvement with ISIS.
ISIS Bombings in Turkey
Things became more complicated in relations between Syria and Turkey with the successful resistance mounted by the Kurds against ISIS in Syria in Kobane and elsewhere. The Syrian Kurdish group PYD which is closely linked with the PKK, have been the only group so far able to defeat and set back the bloodthirsty islamic group while not getting involved in the civil war against Assad. Obviously, this ran completely counter to Erdogan?s strategy in Syria and was why in 2014 the Turkish government did everything it could to prevent support getting through to the besieged Kurds in Kobane.
Fast forward to the 20th of July 2015, just six weeks after the June elections that had taken away the AK Party?s majority in the Turkish parliament. ISIS bombers blew up a press conference meeting of young socialists in Suruç as they prepared to cross from Turkey to Kobane in order to help with reconstruction, killing 33 and injuring over a hundred. Then three months later, a few weeks before the next set of Turkish parliamentary elections, ISIS members exploded two bombs outside a rally of socialists, peace activists and trade unionists in Ankara, killing 102 and injuring over 400 more. The peace rally had been called to protest at Erdogan?s brutal military campaign against the PKK being carried out by land forces across the East of the country and by air in Northern Iraq.
A wave of protests erupted amid widespread accusations that the Turkish Government had at the very least been highly incompetent in allowing Turkish ISIS members known to it to bring bombs into what would normally be a well screened area. The fact that one of the two suicide bombers turned out to be the younger brother of the suicide bomber in Suruç three months earlier didn?t help damp down accusations of incompetence.
In response, the government released information on the ISIS bombers and their group including names and photographs of their key members plus voice recordings of some of their phone conversations. This showed that Turkish intelligence had been watching and listening to them all along but had not intervened to halt their preparations. Instead of reassuring the public that the state was in control of events, this information only fed fire to the flames. It then emerged that a number of the key members of the ISIS group in Turkey had been picked up and interrogated by the police at various times only to be let go without charge. When challenged on how this could have happened the Turkish Prime Minister replied that they had been released because there was no basis on which to hold them. This despite the fact that Turkish law allows anyone suspected of being connected to a terrorist organisation to be held almost indefinitely – precisely the law that was being used to hold hundreds of Kurds in prison, including scores of town mayors, on suspicion of being linked in some way to the PKK. The Prime Minister thus effectively admitted that ISIS had not been regarded by the Turkish armed forces as a ?terrorist organisation? with membership of it being grounds for being held in detention.
To add insult to injury, the Government tried to accuse the Kurdish PKK of having carried out the bombings possibly in conjunction with their arch-enemy ISIS. Both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davuto?lu personally tried to push this ludicrous position which was faithfully reported on all of the pro-AKP newspapers and TV channels in the weeks following the bombings.
Government Forced To Turn Against ISIS
However, such was the avalanche of criticism of the government after the Ankara massacre that it was forced to abandon its benign approach to ISIS and begin to crack down on it. Within days of the bombings a government raid on some of ISIS?s safe houses revealed a massive cache of bombs and weapons. Numerous raids and shootouts with ISIS have since taken place, all of which have demonstrated the action that the Turkish state could have earlier taken against ISIS which would have prevented the Diyarbakir, Suruç and Ankara bombings from being carried out.
In the light of this it was not surprising that many people accused the government of being complicit in the bombings, or even with organising the bombings and using ISIS members as its agents to carry them out. In connection with this view, the co-leader of the left-wing opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, drew attention to the fact that each of the bombings ? in Ankara, in Suruç and in Diyarbak?r (earlier in the year) had targeted only his party. He contrasted this to the way that Erdo?an and the AK Party had been able to conduct many rallies around Turkey without incident. He finished by accusing the government of being involved in the bombings and having ?blood on their hands?.
At first sight, the idea that the AK Party regime were responsible for organising the bombings using ISIS members as their proxies may seem rather extreme. However, it closely fits in with a whole pattern of government-inspired actions designed to provoke HDP supporters into violently protesting and thereby discrediting the party in the run up to the elections. Just a month before the Ankara bombings hundreds of HDP offices across Turkey were attacked by organised crowds and burnt in a co-ordinated action with transport provided, and with police looking on and refusing to intervene. At first the pro-government media tried to blame the right-wing nationalists but then it came out that it was the work of Ottoman Hearths, a pro-AKP youth organisation that was beefed up after the Gezi Park protests in order to provide the government with an arms-length, civil society strong-arm force capable of taking ?spontaneous? action against the government?s enemies.
Clearly, the various bombings at pro-HDP rallies and the burning of their offices round the country were aimed at provoking the HDP’s supporters to come out in force which would inevitably have led to pitched battles with the police and the arrest of leading figures. This was what the Government were hoping for as it would have allowed their media to paint the party even more as a terrorist movement unfit to be in parliament. Quite possibly such a situation would have been enough to prevent HDP reaching over the 10% barrier (as it was they only achieved 10.7% in the elections that followed) which would then have given AK Party the two thirds majority it needed to introduce their all-powerful presidential system. Fortunately, the HDP leadership were well aware of this and strenuously held back its supporters from walking into the government’s trap.
Sadly, the same could not be said for the PKK whose big military reaction to the attacks on it played straight into the governments hands, and helped them succeed in their phoney war and in winning the elections.
Elements of Fascism Appearing
Not only were the pro-AK Party Ottoman Hearths group involved in the attacks on the HDP offices, it was also openly involved last month in attacks on the offices of a leading opposition centre-right newspaper offices and later on one of its leading journalists outside his home. They have since boasted of their role and threatened other anti-government media organisations with similar treatment.
This also ties in with the development of the AKP?s youth wing in a proto-islamic fascist direction which is naturally attracting the support of the most extreme right-wing nationalists who would have belonged to the fascist Grey Wolves organisation in former times. To give an idea of how extreme the mood is that is being whipped up among young government supporters we only have to look at what happened at the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying match between Turkey and Iceland that took place in the pro-AKP area of Konya in the three days of official mourning that was announced following the Ankara bombings. During the one minute silence with both teams bowing their heads in remembrance of the victims and their families, the pro-AKP party crowd just booed, whistled and shouted ?death to the terrorists? and ?Allahu akbar?.
Likewise, some regional AK Party units are working closely with notorious criminals and accessing their gang networks.
AK Party?s Existence at Stake
Some observers from outside Turkey might understandably question whether the AK Party government would really go to such extreme lengths to hold onto power. Given that Turkey has had a western-style election system for a long time one would think that the government would be willing to stand down if it had lost majority support and go into opposition. After all, it has had a long run in power at 13 years, and the economy is no longer racing ahead as it had in earlier years. Why not let the opposition parties have a term in office in a period of economic difficulty and then AK Party could come back to power at a future election with the glow of past economic success behind it?
But this would be to misunderstand the unusual system that AK Party has created in Turkey. For one thing it does not see itself as a normal capitalist party that takes power for a period and then goes into opposition until it can return to office again. Instead it regards itself as a political religious movement out to permanently transform the whole of society in its image. Going back to the status of an opposition party just does not figure in such a mission. Rather it is like an octopus spreading its tentacles into every aspect of economic, social and political life and slowly but surely suffocating all opposition. That is why it has built up a huge membership organisation of five million members along with wider circles of poor people for whom it provides a variety of economic and social benefits paid for out of local and central government funding, as well as through religious foundations funded through massive corruption. In this it has copied the welfare elements of HAMAS in Palestine, and the religious foundations in Iran which now control the majority of the Iranian economy.
To achieve this the government is reputed to levy an unofficial and illegal 20% tax on all significant government contracts which is then funnelled into the party-controlled religious foundations and then distributed to sections of the population to ensure their political support. For the poor, this is seen as an improvement on the old system when they were just ignored by the Kemalist elite in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.
Along the way, significant amounts of the illegal contributions demanded by the government end up in the pockets of AK Party politicians as well as payments in kind in the form of villas, apartments and many other forms of bribery. A glimpse of the gigantic scale of corruption going on was seen in the December 2013 scandal which implicated the sons of various government ministers and which was set to engulf Erdogan and his own family. Amounts to the tune of billions of dollars were found to be involved with recordings of phone conversations between Erdogan, other AK Party leaders and various businessmen confirming the arrangements for payment of the bribes in exchange for construction and arms contracts.
The further enfolding of the scandal was prevented by the governing elite with the dismissal of thousands of leading police officers and judges which has now led to the almost complete takeover of the justice system by the ruling party.
However, we are now told that this huge scandal was just the tip of the iceberg with many tens of billions of dollars involved with other contracts. All this coming from a party who put cleaning up corruption at the very centre of its appeal to the public and whose very name ? AK means white ? was designed to symbolise that this was a party with clean hands which would bring government corruption to an end!
This is the key factor behind the desperation of the government to stay in power no matter what it takes. All the opposition parties are committed to putting the President and the AK Party ministers on trial once they get the chance. This would not only lead to the imprisonment of all the AK Party elite and their corrupt partners but to the dissolution of the party itself. Not only would its credibility be in tatters but without this constant flow of state money the whole edifice would collapse.
That is why the continuation of AK Party in power is an existential issue for them and one that they are prepared to ensure at all costs.
The November 1st election result has only further entrenched the confidence of the President and his party. Emboldened by the success of its murderous strategy, the government now hardly bothers to mask its lies and deceit inventing the most ridiculous excuses for its repressive actions and corrupt practices. Already, it has announced the speeding up of a series of ?mega projects? ? construction of the largest airport in the world, creating a man-made channel between the Black and Marmara Seas, another bridge over the Bosphorus, plus one over the Dardenelles strait – all so that it can line its own pockets no matter the cost to the environment.
And, far from being magnaminous in its victory, the AK Party leaders are bent on vengeance against all who oppose them, seeing the election result as a green light to go further in its mission to take over all aspects of society.
Thus we already see more arrests since the election and more moves to silence dissent in the mass media. The military operation against the PKK in the east of the country continues at full force with offers from the PKK of a ceasefire quickly brushed aside. Fear and gloom has descended on intellectuals and creative people, some of whom have already started to leave the country.
There is a general feeling in the opposition that through his actions this year Erdogan has carried out a civilian coup and will systematically create a personal dictatorship in the coming years. That the last of the opposition media will be snuffed out and that we have seen the last of free and fair elections in the country.
Of course, the future will not be plain sailing. Turkey?s great economic boom which was the underlying reason for AK Party?s past popularity, is now petering out. Growth is likely to be only around 2% this year which is not enough to generate enough employment for the young population here. And the next world recession is likely to hit Turkey much harder that the last one did.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Lira has lost around 30% of its value this year which is leading to a big pickup in inflation as the price of imports shoot up. If the United States does increase interest rates next month then the devaluation of the currency against the dollar will only increase.
These economic problems are hitting living standards while inequality between the rich and poor has grown tremendously ? Turkey is now reported to be the second most unequal society in the 33 country OECD. In order to compete with the opposition parties the AK Party promised in the recent election campaign to give the minimum wage a major boost but already it has backtracked saying it was only committed to reviewing the minimum wage and that this would now not take place until 2017!
All of these economic developments are likely to dent the government?s image of economic competence and reduce its public support among the poor.
Other difficulties face Turkey including the continuing fallout from the war in Syria and the effects of the 2.3 million Syrian refugees residing in the country. Plus the devastating effect of the continuing conflict in the Kurdish areas.
Another problem looming on the horizon is the possibility of ISIS launching serious attacks on the Turkish government which by the logic of events has reluctantly begun to take serious action against the group. By assisting ISIS in the past, including turning a blind eye to the development of its forces within Turkey, the ruling party has been playing with fire. A fire that could blow back in its face. ISIS is said to now have thousands of Turkish members in its ranks so it would not be difficult for it mount a serious challenge to Ankara. And it would only take a few bombs in the tourist areas to severely affect the Turkish economy.
The Opposition Parties
Ironically, with the fall of support for the right-wing Turkish nationalist MHP, the left-wing HDP now moves up from being the fourth largest to the third largest party in parliament. But with AK Party having nearly 60% of the seats there is little that HDP can do in parliament.
Looking ahead, the party still has to face the fact that as long as the Kurdish PKK maintains its policy of armed struggle, it will be difficult for HDP to shrug off the ?terrorist? label in the mind of much of the population and succeed in becoming the main opposition party. If however, the PKK was to follow the path of the Irish Republican Army and decided to destroy its weapons unilaterally then it could possibly reproduce the success of the IRA?s political wing, Sinn Fein, first in establishing an overwhelming hegemony among the Kurds, and then in appealing to a much wider constituency in the rest of the country. Of course, whether this is a likely scenario in a future Turkey languishing under a dictatorial regime is a big question.
Another challenge facing HDP is to succeed in splitting the muslim voting base of the AK Party along class lines. On this it could have more success in coming years.
The other progressive opposition party is the Republican People?s Party (CHP), a member of the Socialist International. While slightly increasing its support in the November 1st election with 25% of the votes and 134 members of the parliament, the CHP was sorely disappointed by the result. Recently, a spokesmen on behalf of the party indicated that the Party is moving away from its nationalistic position in a more social democratic direction. Certainly, it has shown an increased willingness to co-operate with HDP. If this new orientation continues it represents a significant step in the right direction.
A key issue in the party is the lack of effective internal democracy. Since the election there have been many calls for the old leadership which has now lost six elections to stand down and allow a new leadership to be elected. But the existing leader refuses to go so it remains to be seen whether any change will come in the Party?s personnel or policy, for the moment at least. On the other hand, if the party was to reflect the more radical mood that is developing in some social democratic parties as we saw in the election of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, then the CHP could at some stage take a turn to the left as it did back in the 1970s. Such a development would be a welcome step forward towards a CHP / HDP alliance and mark an important stage in the rise of the left in Turkey.