Challenging authoritarian rule: Turkish elections 2023

Turkey elections

First published at Socialist Project.

The Turkish general election is to be held on May 14th, this includes elections to the Parliament as well as election of the President of Turkey in a two round system. The AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) has governed in Turkey for some 21 years drifting from the conservative to an authoritarian party of the far right taking on an increasingly militaristic and fascistic characteristics under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from 2017 on. The AKP now governs in a so-called People’s Alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and now joined by smaller Islamist parties.

The election occurs in the midst of a multi-faceted crisis in Turkish politics from the economic fallout of the pandemic crisis, military engagements in the Kurdish regions of the Turkish state and surrounding regions, and the devastating loss of some 58,000 lives in the recent earthquakes. The emergence of a new fascism in Turkey is being intensively debated on the political left. In this context, an alliance of the left has formed under the banner of the Green Left Party (Yeşil Sol Parti – YSP), with support from other parties in the Labour and Freedom Alliance, with the hopes of a significant breakthrough for the political organization of the oppressed and the left in the election. This is a crucial moment in Turkish politics, the left and the surrounding states in the region.

Sebnem Oguz is formerly Professor of Political Science at Baskent University in Ankara, and a member of the editorial board of Socialist Register. She is here interviewed by Panagiotis Sotiris who teaches at the Open Hellenic University and works as a journalist in Athens, and is on the editorial board of Historical Materialism.

Panagiotis Sotiris (PS): What can you say about the situation in Turkey and the social and political dynamics on the eve of the election?

Sebnem Oguz (SO): First of all, we are dealing with the devastating consequences of the deep transformation of the political regime toward what I would call a new type of Islamic fascism and the extreme impoverishment of broad sections of society under twenty-one years of AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) rule. On top of all this came the loss of over 58,000 lives in the recent earthquake, which, as many critics have rightfully argued, is a political disaster rather than a natural one. That’s why the majority of people in Turkey are fed up with the AKP regime and want a real change in the upcoming elections.

However, this will not be as easy as it has been the case with countries like the US and Brazil. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro had to accept defeat after a short period of opposing the election results because they did not stay in power for an adequate period of time to organize and take root in all state institutions. However, Recep Erdoğan’s government has remained in power for more than twenty years, creating its own bourgeoisie, forming its paramilitary forces, and redesigning the army, judiciary, media, and other state institutions. He has successfully managed the transition from the previous power bloc based on Western-oriented big capitalists that grew in the early years of the Kemalist regime to a new power bloc of emerging Islamic capitalists oriented toward countries like Qatar, Russia, and Azerbaijan.

This transition was accompanied by a deep change in the state apparatuses whereby the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) became a prominent institution with a huge budget and extensive personnel, making political interventions in all areas of social life. In the meantime, the Turkish state has turned into a war machine that spent nearly 20% of its budget on military activities, becoming a warring state that reproduced the conflict in Eastern Turkey with the Kurdish population and conducted numerous cross-border invasions of Syria in the last four years.

All this transformation gained new dimensions after AKP’s formation of the “People’s Alliance” with the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party) and BBP (Great Unity Party) in 2018. This alliance not only deepened the fascist Islamic character of the regime but also enhanced formal and informal coalitions with ultranationalist gangs, mafia leaders, and paramilitary forces. On the eve of 2023 elections, two more Islamic parties have joined the alliance: HUDAPAR (Free Cause Party) and YRP (New Welfare Party).

HUDAPAR is a Kurdish Islamist party which has its roots in the armed Hezbollah group (not related to the Lebanese Shi’a organization by the same name), that is responsible for the murder of hundreds of people including Kurdish dissidents, rights defenders, and journalists in the 1990s. It is called “Hezbo-contras” because of the role it played in state forces’ operations involving extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. HUDAPAR has Sharia-minded elements in its program such as the criminalization of extra-marital relationships, expansion of single-sex education, and revision of women’s working conditions to “befit their nature.”

Similarly, the YRP, which shares the same Islamic roots as the AKP, is against LGBT rights and aims to end a law that protects women and children against domestic violence. Therefore, this new alliance has been rightfully described as a “new type Taliban alliance” by Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned former co-leader of the HDP. It is indeed the most reactionary bloc in Turkish political history, backed by various religious cults that flourished under AKP rule. If this bloc gets elected, the transformation of the political regime toward Islamic fascism will be completed. So, the upcoming election is not only about choosing parliamentary deputies and the president but also, in fact, choosing the political regime.

PS: Are the tragic consequences of the earthquakes and the way they brought forward all the contradictions of the AKP era going to be a decisive factor in the elections?

SO: This is a difficult question. According to polls, there is a certain decline in AKP’s votes, but this decline is not so much related to the mismanagement of the earthquake. There are several reasons for this. First, Turkish society has already been polarized into two camps – “two nations” – for years, and the AKP is interested in consolidating its own support basis rather than increasing its votes from the other camp. So, after the earthquake, the AKP sent more aid to Turkish and Sunni populated areas than Kurdish and Alevi populated areas. Thus, while the government’s response to the earthquake galvanized anger among opposition voters, it did not affect core AKP voters to the same degree.

Second, throughout the relief efforts, the propaganda machine of the AKP government worked quite effectively in cooperation with Turkish Intelligence Agency and the Diyanet to save the image of Erdoğan and the regime. Displays of religious slogans were used to elicit angry responses from the secularist bloc, which, in turn, helped Erdoğan consolidate his Islamic base.

Pro-AKP news channels presented Jihadist organizations and Islamic cults as NGOs fighting against the earthquake, as those who pulled people out of the wreckage alive, saying “Allahuekber” (while, in fact, the rescuers were other volunteers). Also, anti-migrant politician Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right Zafer (Victory) Party, was mobilized with the goal of channeling public anger toward Syrian and other migrant groups who were accused of looting in areas affected by the earthquake. Finally, Erdoğan promised that cities would be rebuilt in a year through a reconstruction drive. This promise not only convinced his voters that only Erdoğan could restore their lives to pre-quake normality but also secured the support of pro-AKP capitalists, as the reconstruction plans would serve further wealth transfers to them.

PS: To what extent are the economic situation, inflation, and unemployment going to play a role?

SO: I think they are going to play a very significant role, maybe more than the earthquake. However, the AKP government has been trying to take measures to prevent this. Some of these measures involve populist economic support mechanisms. For instance, the age requirement for retirement was lifted for those who started employment before 1999, which means 2,250,000 citizens will have the right to retire. Increase in the minimum wage, public employee salaries, and pensions; amnesty of interest on student loans; an inexpensive housing scheme for first-time home buyers; and cheaper credit for businesses are other mechanisms of this kind. However, these measures are not enough to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis.

So, the AKP government is increasingly resorting to two major ideological mechanisms. First is the narrative of the “Century of Turkey” (the major slogan of Erdoğan’s election campaign), which emphasizes glorious “domestic and national” technological achievements such as the country’s “first domestically produced electric car” TOGG (which, in fact, largely depends on foreign companies for some of its essential parts); Turkey’s first amphibious assault ship, TCG Anadolu, “as the world’s first armed unmanned aircraft carrier,” etc. AKP leaders argue that these developments are more important than the declining purchasing power of masses.

A recent example is quite telling in this regard. In response to opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu’s complaints about the tremendous increase in the price of onions, some AKP and MHP leaders arrogantly said, “While we are concerned with our nation’s glorious projects like TOGG, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, new natural gas in the Black Sea, etc., the opposition is concerned with trivial issues like the price of onions.” I believe this strategy cannot be effective in containing the anger of masses.

However, there is another ideological mechanism that I think might be effective on religious people: the Diyanet fetwas which legitimize poverty and inflation with statements such as “Poor people are closest to God,” “God will test believers with fear and hunger, with a decline in their lives and belongings, but God will award the patient ones at the end,” “It is only Allah who sets prices, gives hardship and abundance, and provides for,” etc. These fetwas serve to consolidate AKP voters while, at the same time, produce more anger at the secular opposition forces.

The response of people living in the countryside and those living in big cities might also differ. AKP votes in the countryside might not decline that much, as people living there are more conservative and open to Diyanet fetwas. But there might be more decline in AKP votes in three big cities, Ankara, İzmir and Istanbul. This is because the AKP used to say that social assistance will drop if the CHP wins local elections. To the contrary, municipal aid in these cities has increased since the CHP won elections in 2019, so people feel that they are not dependent on the AKP for survival.

PS: Do you think that a rejection of Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of governance is going to be evident in the election?

SO: If elections were held in a free and secure environment, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism would definitely be a major factor in his defeat. Polls show that the votes for Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan are still close, but Kılıçdaroğlu’s votes are a bit higher. So, under normal conditions, we would expect Kılıçdaroğlu to win the presidential elections (maybe in the second round because Muharrem Ince will split the votes) and the opposition parties to win the majority of seats in the Parliament. However, there are important barriers against this. First among them is concern about election security. We know that only 450,000 of the over 2 million voters who left the earthquake-zone are registered. But 1,626,000 thousand voters did not register, as the deadline set by YSK (Supreme Election Council) was too close. So, they have to go back to their cities in the earth-quake zone in order to vote on election day. This is risky, as it is quite difficult to reach those cities after the quake.

There are also concerns that names of people who were lost in the earthquake can be used as voters for the AKP. The YSK’s ruling against marking voters’ fingers with indelible ink during the voting process increases this risk. Furthermore, ballot boxes will be established in 15 new countries, like Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and Pakistan, where maintaining election security might be quite difficult. And most importantly, the Supreme Election Council and its provincial organizations are not impartial. Just to give an example, recently the President of Diyarbakır 9th High Criminal Court, which gave heavy sentences to Kurdish politicians, was made the Chairman of the Provincial Election Board there.

The second barrier is the use of violence against opposition parties. Recently, buildings of the CHP (Republican People’s Party), İYİP (Good Party), and YSP (Green Left Party – successor of HDP) were attacked or vandalized in Ankara, İzmir, and Istanbul. These incidents might increase and create an atmosphere of fear. There are also concerns that paramilitary forces close to the HUDAPAR might terrorize the voting stations in Kurdish provinces, districts, and villages and may even be recruited for Trump-like, Bolsonaro-like opposition in the event of AKP’s loss.

And finally, Erdoğan may play the usual nationalist card. It seems that the cross-border operation to be carried out in Rojava might not take place due to both the lack of international support and the great destruction in the earthquake. So, Erdoğan might choose to further criminalize the HDP inside the borders (although it will enter the elections under the Green Left Party due to the risk of the border being closed). The recent statement by the Turkish prosecution asking for 36 defendants, including former co-chairs of the HDP, to be punished by life imprisonment in the extremely politicized Kobani trial might serve this purpose. Erdoğan might use it in his election campaign to criminalize the Green Left Party as a successor of HDP.

PS: What aspects of social and political conflict are going to be reflected in the election?

SO: Twenty-one years of AKP rule has culminated in serious social and political conflicts induced by a deep transformation of state institutions, foreign policy, and economic management, which are all related to the AKP’s shift away from a Western-oriented power bloc to an Islamic-oriented one. Internationally, this shift also corresponds to a shift in the neoliberal model from one with rule-based institutions to another in which resource distribution is tied to “political loyalty” and informal networks of power.

The three major alliances which will compete in the elections, that is, the ruling People’s Alliance (led by AKP, having vote rates of 35-45 percent); the main opposition Nation’s Alliance (led by CHP, having vote rates of 35-45 percent); and the Labour and Freedom Alliance (led by the Green Left Party, with vote rates of 10-12 percent) have different approaches to these models. The ruling People’s Alliance wants to consolidate the politicized neoliberal model based on informal networks of power, whereas the Nation’s Alliance led by the CHP wants to restore the neoliberal model with rule-based institutions. The Labour and Freedom Alliance rejects both models and offers a third alternative which combines anti-capitalist economic policies with a radical democracy project aiming to solve the Kurdish issue through peaceful methods.

The common goal of all oppositional alliances is the overthrow of the 21-year-old AKP regime. At this point, understanding the amendment made in the electoral system a year ago is very important. According to the previous election law, seats were distributed to alliances in proportion to their respective voting rates and then distributed within the alliances. With the amendment, the seats will be distributed directly to the parties; hence, the parties in the same alliance will compete against each other. Thus, if alliances run in the election with multiple lists, the number of deputies they can win is significantly reduced. On the contrary, if they compete with a single merged list, the number of deputies would increase considerably.

The AKP made this amendment because if this system had been implemented in the 2018 election, the AKP-MHP alliance would have gotten more seats, while the CHP-İYİP alliance would have gotten fewer seats. Accordingly, on the eve of 2023 elections, the AKP wanted to merge candidate lists with the MHP. However, the MHP refused to do so after the new additions to the alliance. This means the People’s Alliance might end up with 15 to 20 seats less than it could have won. So, we can say that the AKP’s initial plan backfired. The Nation’s Alliance, on the other hand, managed to turn the system to its own advantage by creating “alliances within alliances” in electoral districts throughout the country. Accordingly, İYİP will have its own lists and candidates of the four smaller parties in the Nation’s Alliance that will compete as candidates of the CHP, to switch back to their parties once elected.

However, the same cannot be said for Labour and Freedom Alliance composed of Green Left Party and Turkish Workers Party (TİP). The Green Left Party has its own joint list which combines candidates from HDP and its five socialist component parties with Kurdish political parties such as Kurdish Communist Party and three other Turkish socialist parties. But it couldn’t convince the TİP to join this common list. The TİP will field candidates separately in 41 provinces. This will mean candidates of both parties will compete with each other in some provinces, which might lead to a loss of seats for the Labour and Freedom Alliance as a whole.

PS: The decision of the HDP not to present a presidential candidate, will it help the opposition’s chances, and how is it related to the party’s stated goals of increased democratization?

SO: The HDP’s decision not to present a presidential candidate practically means supporting Kılıçdaroğlu in the presidential elections. This will definitely help the opposition’s chances, as the HDP’s 10-12 percent voting rate will be crucial for Kılıçdaroğlu to win a majority against Erdoğan. I believe that Kılıçdaroğlu’s possible presidency will also help the HDP’s goals of democratization. It is important to remember that Kılıçdaroğlu said, “The address for the solution of Kurdish problem is the Parliament” in his recent meeting with the HDP co-chairs.

Of course, Kılıçdaroğlu might not be able to go too far in these attempts because of his nationalist ally, the IYIP. He might not be able to break up with the national security paradigm either. Still, his discourse on security has its differences from Erdoğan’s. Kılıçdaroğlu is much more interested in border security against incoming refugees and Jihadist groups rather than cross-border operations in northern Syria. More importantly, he might take important steps toward democratization through re-establishing the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, autonomy of universities, etc. It is the duty of HDP and its allies to force Kılıçdaroğlu to take further steps in this direction.

PS: Do you think there is any chance of different dynamics being expressed in the presidential and parliamentary elections?

SO: An important dynamic to be considered in the elections is how the ruling and oppositional blocs will respond to the huge wealth transfer to pro-AKP capitalists, bureaucrats, and Islamic cults over the 21 years of AKP rule. Kılıçdaroğlu has pledged to get back $418-billion of state funds transferred from the Treasury to the “Gang of 5,” the five biggest conglomerates that grew through AKP’s support in recent years. In response, the Gang of 5 is alleged to have had informal meetings to defeat Kılıçdaroğlu in the elections, while simultaneously negotiating with members of IYIP for a smooth transition in case the Nation’s Alliance wins.

Similarly, the AKP is doing all it can to win the elections in order to maintain these wealth-transfer mechanisms and prevent lawsuits against them. At the same time, however, they are also preparing themselves for the possibility of losing power. An important step they have taken in this regard is nominating many former AKP ministers as parliamentary candidates so that they can be given immunity. Similarly, the list of MHP’s deputy candidates includes the suspects of five political murders that will never be forgotten in Turkish political history.

To conclude, I can say that we will not have normal elections, not only in terms of the electoral process itself but also in terms of the possible composition of the new parliament. We might see counter-guerrilla leaders and political murderers, representatives of different national and international power blocs, deputies expected to serve as “diplomats” between these blocs, former AKP ministers with immunity for their previous crimes in the new parliament. On the other hand, we hope to have numerous deputies from the Labour and Freedom Alliance who will struggle for a totally different world. There are only 30 days left, but everything is still very unpredictable. Let’s hope that the elections will pave the way for a transition from dictatorship to democracy rather than the consolidation of dictatorship. •

This article first published in Greek on the website.

Sebnem Oguz is a retired profesor of political science and a member of Ankara Solidarity Academy. She received her PhD degree in Political Science from York University, Canada.

Panagiotis Sotiris is a journalist based in Athens, Greece and a member of the editorial board of Historical Materialism.