Volkan Aran looks at the prospects for the Left and the movement going into the Turkish presidential elections
As Turkey approaches its first ever direct presidential elections on 10th August, last summer’s resistance against the government seems to have been replaced by a more theatrical political atmosphere surrounding the election campaigns. And yet only a couple of months ago, the political agenda bore distinct similarities to that of a year ago.
In May, after one of the deadliest industrial accidents in the history of the country - which killed 301 miners according to official figures - Turkey found itself in a prolonged state of mourning. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s mis-management of the crisis triggered a wave of protests in Soma and throughout the country, mirroring last summer’s unrest. Erdoğan’s determination to normalize the accident and his distinct lack of responsibility stirred intense anger among the miners and their kith and kin, local people and those who felt connected with them across the country.
And just one month later, in the Kurdish province of Lice, a district of Diyarbakır, two people were killed by Turkish soldiers who opened fire at a protest. The protest was against the construction of a new military outpost, which for the protestors showed that the Turkish government was not honest about the peace talks being held with the PKK. This new, high technology, bullet proof, elevated outpost was quite simply an investment for the coming war.
The protests against the new military outposts were already under way since the time of the Gezi uprising last year - when a young boy, Medeni Yıldırım (18) was killed by fire from the military outpost - but they have intensifed recently. This was a crucial moment bringing together the Kurdish political movement and the Gezi protestors in the west of the country. Together they replaced Taksim as the popular slogan of the day: ‘Everywhere Lice, everywhere resistance’.
Given that state violence has not stopped since then, it is now time to ask why the resistance that started last year with Occupy Gezi has experienced an attenuation. How did Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP maintain their support in local elections in March? And what prospects are there for the Left and the movement going into the presidential elections?
The AKP stands its ground
After a long year of uprisings and corruption allegations against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the local election results delivered a surprise, if not a serious shock to many observers. The AKP held on to its support with 45.6% of the vote.
Following the resistance movement sparked at Gezi park in İstanbul and the recent corruption allegations against four cabinet members and their sons, a sharp fall in the AKP's votes was anticipated. But in the end, a prime minister who had accepted some of the allegations, including trying to influence the courts’ decisions and effectively building his own media empire, has maintained his popularity, leaving his main opponent, the CHP (Republican Party) flagging at 28% of the vote. The scenario is reminiscent of Italy's Berlusconi. Turkey has been experiencing the same drawbacks of contemporary parliamentary democracy under an authoritarian leadership. The truth is that the prime minister has not maintained his popularity despite his abuses of power, manipulations and anti-democratic manoeuvres, but because of them.
It was not that freedom of expression was totally violated, but rather the messages and representations sent out by the government were disguised as the expression of a supposedly free media. A twitter and Youtube ban which would be devastating in a working democracy was easily defended by Erdoğan by pitting 'global private companies vs. Turkey's vital interests'. Using the state apparatus, but also his power over the media and the petit bourgeoisie, Erdoğan declared his victory. And on the night of the election results, stood next to him were his family members and non-elected consultants, as if to indicate the inauguration of a dynasty.
Flashback to Resistance: Gezi 2013
But we still have to ask the question, what happened to the resistance at the level of the ballot box and where were the socialist Left in this picture? To answer this, we should quickly remind ourselves about the course of events in Turkey last year.
At the end of May 2013 the Gezi resistance movement came as a surprise, for two reasons: firstly, the urban educated middle class youth was never supposed to be so politicised; secondly, the resistance itself was ‘wrongly’ timed vis-a-vis the Kurdish peace process, which was looking more promising than ever. Professor Nazan Üstündag from Bosphorus University (also a consultant to the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP) says that 'the Peace process opened up a space for the Gezi protests. When non-military, civil space is opened up, the accumulated discontents of the masses pour onto the streets'.
Before the peace process, political tension on the street was mostly defined by the polarisation between nationalists and supporters of the Kurdish cause, leaving no space for another binary opposition. Under normal circumstances in Turkish politics, when a group organise a protest against the state or the government, or stand up for the rights of an oppressed group, they are immediately stigmatised as PKK supporters, without any proper discussion or debate. The peace process made political and civil protest possible, even if it didn’t prevent the use of violence by the police and para-military forces.
Within this new civil-political space, a small incident beginning with the demolishment of Gezi park by a third party contractor - with an ambiguous plan to build a shopping mall and artillery barracks in its place - sparked a huge uprising that caught political parties off guard. Lacking leadership and organisation, when Erdoğan pointed to the ballot box as the exclusive device of democracy, no party was in a position to declare a boycott of the elections. Opposition parties on the Left maintained a false hope that the elections would reflect the anti-government mood. But any voice criticising the censure of the media and the political bias of the judicial system was either deliberately ignored, or was so weak that it was effectively muted as the political dogfight intensified approaching election day.
Parliamentary Opposition: the Left and the Nationalists
The Gezi resistance involved a counter-parliamentary democracy opposed to the centralisation and concentration of political forces, as well as the commodification of the commons and urban gentrification based on outright expropriation. That part of the movement has been neglected by the political actors of mainstream opposition parties, who took the movement as an extension of the secular, nationalist, republican discourse, and tied its hopes to the idea of a grand coalition against the AKP's candidates in the mayoral elections.
Despite the fact that real coalitions between nationalist forces of the CHP and ultra-nationalist MHP (The Nationalist Movement Party) have been developed at a grassroots level, this nationalist coalition never had a chance of involving left wing parties. Specifically it was far removed from the HDP (People's Democratic Party), which was established after Gezi by left-wing affiliates of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Peoples' Democratic Congress (HDK), to create a platform composed of left wing party factions, LGBT groups, trade unions, and ethnic initiatives.
The impact of the Gezi revolt on party politics showed itself not only in the establishment of the HDP, but also in novel youth initiatives surrounding the elections. From poll control initiatives to the emergency re-counting teams set up after allegations of misconduct, a mode of reclaiming the political space made itself visible again. In Ankara, young people organised themselves at short notice to take up the task of recounting the votes of the CHP in order to lodge an appeal after the AKP’s long ruling mayor (in office for 15 years) once again won the elections with a 0.1% lead after a dubious late come-back.
However, it would be a fatal mistake to attribute the soul of the resistance to specific parties. The protestors cannot be moulded into a unique ideology or framework, as they are involved in or favour different organizations, fractions and parties. Nazan Üstündağ has said that one should not expect the protestors to find a voice under one roof, 'but they separately show one direction: Democracy and peace. So what is more likely is that they will initiate a transition within their own networks, organisations and parties.'
The Politics of Everyday Life
But optimism based on the emancipatory moment of Occupy Gezi could be misleading. During mass movements people claim the space that was taken from them. Politics becomes a matter of everyday life. Everyday life becomes political. And when the everyday struggle is set back, that is, when the fight for reclaiming space - political or physical - is set back, ‘high’ politics replaces everyday politics.
Today, in the world of high politics, big words and political fictions carefully packaged and put into distribution become a political commodity, marketable like any other. Lacking the opportunity to join the political debate, the masses receive little more than briefs, propaganda and headline politics. During periods when democratic rights are in abeyance, this supposedly democratic arena (electoral politics) is, paradoxically, precisely the one most favoured by the ruling parties. Ideology is de-conceptualised and what is left is only a demagogic entertainment.
Anticipating an increase in their own vote, Left wing parties have encouraged the absorption of the Gezi movement within this non-symmetrical power struggle. But this has proven to be a mistake. Instead of continuing the struggle of everyday politics with an ideal of a direct democracy and a free, communal life, the political agent is invaded by an aggregative democracy embodied in a parliamentary system of elections divorced from local contexts.
The Gezi uprising created local forums throughout the urban centers. By contrast, local elections were centred on candidates who gained their character and power from a central decision making process. The local elections completely neglected demands for devolving power and bringing enviornmental and spatial issues to the agenda. After that point, the most obvious option for a supporter of the resistance was to vote for the second most likely candidate, who might have a chance of defeating the AKP's candidate in the mayoral elections. In most cases this second option was the CHP. Certainly this was the case in the three biggest cities of Turkey. An attitude of 'stamp it and buzz off’ dominated the political arena.
Many people who started out supporting the Left, ended up following the elections on TV as CHP supporters. (Granted, this is not true in regions where the Kurdish population dominates. The CHP is still regarded by many Kurdish people as a nationalist and elitist party composed of bureaucrats and state officials). On the other hand, the AKP's solid base should be studied carefully. An analysis of the elections that accounts for the results solely in terms of media power and corruption would inevitably fall short. The history of the AKP and the role of the Left will be the subject of part 2 in the series.
Volkan Aran is a freelance writer, engineer and political activist living in London. His writings have been published regularly by Cumhuriyet Pazar Dergi and Mesele in Turkey. Together with a group of journalists, writers and academicians, he recently set up the online magazine, baskisiz.org