June 6, 2015 -- LeftEast, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- With Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections fast approaching, all
eyes are on the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) contesting its first
ever election as a party, rather than a coalition of nominally
independent candidates: a momentous decision on the part of the party
leadership, which stands to gain clout in parliament and solidify its
position as the electoral standard-bearer of the radical Left—or fall
below the constitutionally mandated 10% barrier and be excluded from
At issue is whether the party has succeeded at
building a leftist coalition including, but not limited to, its base of
support in the Kurdish national movement. At stake is whether or not the
party will play a key role in a successful effort to block Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) from gaining the number
of seats necessary to rewrite the constitution and transform Turkey into
an executive republic with Erdoğan as its quasi-omnipotent head.
The importance of the relatively new left-wing party in this election
has not gone unnoticed by those whose tactic is violence. In the last
few days assaults on HDP activists and others working for the party have
mounted, with four people killed in a party rally in Diyarbakıron June 5 , most likely by far-right forces, in an apparent attempt to
assassinate party co-chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş, who was standing
about 30 metres from where the bomb exploded.
Over the last few decades violence both physical and structural has
played a major part in the creation of a sociopolitical terrain in
which, in proletarian sections of many major cities, the AKP and the HDP
are now the two parties fighting over votes. Recently, we sat down with
Erdem Yörük (pictured), sociologist at Koç University in Istanbul and expert on the
recent history of the working class in Turkey, to discuss these
historical developments and assess the HDP’s chances of making history
in this critical election.
LeftEast: Your work provides some perspectives on the changing face
of the labour movement in Turkey in relation to the plight of Kurdish
workers displaced by the state’s war with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1980s and
1990s. Could you briefly sketch for us the direction that your work takes
in this regard?
Erdem Yörük: It was in the aftermath of the shift in economic planning that
happened around 1980 that the whole face of the working class in Turkey
changed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the developmentalist
economy featuring tariff protection, state-owned enterprises and an
emphasis on agricultural self-sufficiency gave way to an export economy
fuelled by low-wage labour by a new class: the informal proletariat. The
plans for this shift were laid early in 1980 and solidified under the
military regime and in its immediate aftermath. These reforms weakened
the position of small farmers in the overall economy, necessitating
internal immigration to the cities in search of wage labour—and other
forces augmented this trend.
As far as the labour movement is concerned, of course the general
suppression of the left during the 1980 coup played a role here, but a
still more significant factor in the decline of organised labor and the
rise of the informal proletariat was the war between the state and the
PKK. Internally displaced Kurds who left villages that had been
destroyed by the army or an economy generally ruined by war were
desperate, and willing to do even the worst jobs, without social
security or job security, often on a temporary basis, in what came to be
known as the informal sector. These people swelled into the big cities,
which were on every level—in terms of housing, infrastructure,
health—barely able to accommodate them, and everything in their daily
lives became a matter of makeshift solutions and negotiation. Without
these wage labourers at the bottom of the economic pyramid, the
industries that have grown in Turkey over the last few decades would not
have gotten off the ground; the country’s economic growth that has
gotten such press internationally is due to their labour.
The huge changes to the class landscape brought about by
neoliberalism were bound to have political consequences as well. The
1980s were a time of political tranquility in Turkey, but in the 1990s
ideological competition in Turkish politics really intensified, with
political Islam on the ascendant. Because political Islam was able to
organise social aid on a local and communitarian basis, it filled the
vacuum left by a retreating left that had not adjusted to the new
realities of the informal economy, and managed to address the destitute
workers of the cities and earn their loyalty. The Kurdish national
movement did similar things. Meanwhile the labour unions, which were
unable to absorb the huge influx of internal immigrants and in any case
restricted in various ways by anti-union legislation, went into decline.
Your dissertation concerns welfare policy as an instrument of social control. How does this work under the AKP?
The distribution of charity by the representatives of political
Islam—not only the AKP but also its predecessors including the Welfare
Party (Refah Partisi) going back to the 1980s and 1990s, has
had two goals: not only to maintain control through dependence, but to
cultivate political support. The party cultivates support from
impoverished workers by distributing aid on the understanding that
membership in the right cultural and religious community positively
affects the chances of getting aid. The goal is to foster a sense of
community and common belonging among these people that translates into
support for the party. Since coming to power, the AKP government has
specifically targeted Kurdish citizens as recipients of its strategic
generosity, while still ruthlessly combatting other forces, such as the
Kurdish national movement, which might become rivals for these people’s
Since 2002 the government has very skillfully built up a
system of patrimonial charity to substitute for the kind of
working-class solidarity one finds in the labour movement; it has
increased non-pension welfare spending while attacking the trade unions. What
can or should the left do in response to this strategy?
Many leftists in Turkey have traditionally opposed welfare provision,
arguing instead for more structural solutions. Of course they are right
to insist that structural solutions are necessary, but in the meantime
people are hungry and want to know who is going to help them. I think
this has been a serious problem for the left in Turkey. When someone is
hungry, telling him you have a structural solution to that is just not
going to be convincing. You have to give him something in the short term
while continuing to work on your structural solutions for the long
term. Right now many in the informal proletariat are dependent on aid
from the government, which is being given out as a favour that can be
revoked at any time. What the left should do is to develop the notion
that such aid is not a favor but a right. This is what has to be done.
President Erdoğan recently declared that “there is no longer a
Kurdish problem in Turkey”, as if the Kurds or their condition had been
a problem but that his government had solved it. This kind of
negationist rhetoric was the standard discourse on the Kurdish movement for Turkish governments before
the AKP; both the center-left Bülent Ecevit and the Islamist Necmettin
Erbakan embraced it. What do you think the return to this rhetoric
signals as far as policy in the near future is concerned?
Such statements are purely tactical. Erdoğan is approaching an
election and he knows that the nationalist votes outnumber the votes in
favor of a peaceful solution to the conflict. Later he may move back. He
has made such tactical moves before, and he will probably make them
Many international leftists now see the Peoples’ Democracy
Party (HDP) as the great hope for a revival of the Left in Turkey. Do
you think these hopes are well placed?
I do, and I’ll tell you, I am a member of the party and active within
in, and I believe very much in its promise; in short I believe that the
HDP can break the impasse Turkish politics is currently in and help
democratise the country. I am not Kurdish myself, I am an ethnic Turk,
and I joined the party because of the principles it espouses. It is not
only a Kurdish party but rather aspires to be a broad coalition for the left in Turkey. They have reached out to various minority communities,
to the LGBT’s…
Yet at the same time some of its parliamentarians, for
instance Altan Tan, have said that they did not like this outreach and,
if I remember correctly, refused to be photographed with the LGBT
activists at the event that the party leadership had organised for them.
Yes, Altan Tan took that stance, and he represents a reality among
conservative Kurdish constituency. We have to remember that the
political and social composition of the HDP coalition is quite
heterogeneous. Yet the party is working not only to advance the rights
of the Kurdish people, but also to expand the hegemony of the left in
whole Turkey and among the Kurds alike, and by doing that they are
taking a risk. They are allying themselves to the LGBT’s, the Alevis and
other excluded groups, even at the risk of alienating more
conservative, religious elements within the Kurdish constituency.
remember that both conservatism and religion are more prevalent among
the Kurds than among the citizens of Turkey taken as a whole. And some
of those conservative Muslims are very active and important figures in
the party, and so you have Altan Tan. And Altan Tan is a Muslim; Altan
Tan is pious. And he is a very important figure in Kurdistan. Yet at the
same time the party has been joining forces with the LGBT’s, feminists
and other groups. What the party does deserve our respect: trying to
raise the hegemony of the left while forming alliances with all
progressive forces, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Recently there was a poll bandied about in the Turkish press
that purported to show a large portion of the Kurdish residents of
Istanbul, a majority of whom voted for the ruling party in 2011, now
supporting HDP. Do you think such reports are accurate and if so, do
they signal a nationwide trend?
Yes, I think such reports are accurate. I think a similar shift is
taking place elsewhere in the country as well. Kobane is the turning
point. Polls show that before Kobane, 50% of Kurds in Turkey voted for
the AKP, and 40% for the HDP. Now it is 60% for the HDP and 30% for the
AKP. Kurds felt extremely disappointed and threatened during the battle
Many in the ulusalcı or left-nationalist camp
suspect that the HDP may be willing to suspend its opposition to Erdoğan
nationally in return for a successful conclusion to the negotiations
between the state and the PKK. Turkey would then be left with an
all-powerful Erdoğan presidency along with regional autonomy for the
Kurdish regions. What do you think of such fears?
First of all, a couple of months ago, the ulusalcı solcular, the
nationalist leftists said that the HDP had decided to join the election
as a party because they had made a deal with the ruling party: that
they would stay outside the parliament intentionally in order to support
the AKP. This was the conspiracy theory, and it was a most stupid one, a
racialist one as it blames the Kurds for being stupid … and now that the
HDP is organised so deeply in the elections, this kind of conspiracy
theory has just disappeared, but another one has taken its place.
second conspiracy theory holds that the HDP would support the presidency
of Erdoğan. And Selahattin Demirtaş said, seni Başkan yaptırmayacağız!
“We will not make your president!” So this conspiracy theory too has
disappeared. So now the third one: that the HDP will make a coalition
with the AKP. Demirtaş said, “We will not make a coalition with the AKP.”
So the party will respond to this conspiracy theory and next week
another conspiracy theory will emerge, because there is a big sense of
distrust, a structural distrust of the Kurds. The nationalist left sees
the Kurds as terrorists and they see the HDP as the party of the Kurds.
There’s this logic: Kurds have their own particular interests, and these
interests can be traded with the AKP at the expense of the interests of
the left and of the other components of the country.
But this kind of
logic misses the fact that the HDP itself is a huge coalition of
different groups. Kurds are the largest part, but in terms of the
administrators, the activists and the supporters of the party, half of
the party consists of socialists, LGBT people, women, Alevis, etc., and
these groups know that if Erdoğan gets what he wants, I mean if the
authoritarian tendencies of the AKP increase, they will become the first
targets of this tendency. This other part will never let the party ally
itself to the AKP. This is the structural guarantee of the
impossibility of this kind of an alliance. So this too is complicated
but to make a long story short, this kind of an alliance is only a
Also, there is one more concrete thing to falsify these conspiracy
theories. During the last couple of months, the AKP has based its
election campaign almost exclusively on developing hatred towards the
HDP. This has manifested itself in several physical attacks on the
party. Yesterday, in HDP Diyarkabır meeting, bombing killed four people.
Before the Adana and Mersin headquarters of the HDP were bombed. So
far during the campaign, 175 of our election bureaus have been attacked.
One of our campaign staff was first tortured and then killed, one of
them was burned and he is still in intensive care in the hospital. Many
of ballot observers have recently been taken into custody.
systematical attacks on the HDP and many people find the government
Do you think that the traditional centre-left opposition, for
instance the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has any role to play in
the construction of a more just and democratic Turkey, or have they
missed that chance?
They have lost that chance for the last 80 years, actually … but it
seems that they have taken some lessons in the last couple of years.
With pressure from the HDP they have moved to the left. They have made
some proposals that appeal to the working class and some members of the
CHP have said they would consider making an alliance with the HDP as
well. These are positive things that are good for democracy in Turkey. I
don’t think that the CHP is a real candidate for government in this
election, as the polls show them with only 26%-27% of the vote, but in
the future things may change.
… in which case the CHP’s new openness to work with groups like the HDP would be of benefit both to them and to the country.
I think so.
One more question. What relation, if any, do you think ruling
party’s conservative cultural agenda bears to the class struggle in
I think that during the last 10 years AKP has hijacked the class
struggle in Turkey. They have mobilised all the class-related grievances
of the working class with an anti-elite discourse, a populist
discourse, and populist policies also—the social policy etc.; the AKP
has presented itself as the representative of the working class, the millet,
and it claims that the CHP represents the elite, the upper class and
westernised people, and the West. There is some kind of reality behind
this, because when you look at the statistics, there’s a positive
correlation between income level and CHP voting and a negative
correlation between income level and AKP voting. The AKP is a bourgeois
party that pretends to represent the working class. It’s like Louis
… which as we know in the Marxist tradition tends to be seen as the anticipation of fascism, right?
Yes. So what do they say about history? The first time a tragedy, the second time a farce, and the third time … I don’t know!
So the classes have formed their identity between these two parties:
the lower middle class supports the AKP and the upper middle class the
CHP; the HDP is trying to break down this polarisation and become the
party of the working class of different ethnic and religious groups and
democratic factions of the middle class. Because insofar as political
discourse continues the way it has been going, it is really difficult to
conduct a real class struggle in the country. Religiosity increases
among the working class, and conservatism increases among the working
class, and the AKP has tried to eliminate any other kind of discourse
among the working class. So this is why I think the first agenda of the left in the country is to struggle against the government.
[Erdem Yörük is an assistant professor of sociology at Koç University in Istanbul and an expert on the political economy of welfare
policy in Turkey, and more generally on the recent history of the
working classes in the country. International readers may be familiar
with his articles in the New Left Review and the South Atlantic Quarterly, which analyse the class dimensions and historical contexts of the Gezi protests.]