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Behind the Crackdown

The Turkish left is under severe attack from Erdoğan and the state. How did it come to this?

Demonstrators in Istanbul hold pictures of victims and signs reading "unforgettable, unforgiven" during a rally on Tuesday against last weekend's bombing in Ankara. Yasin Akgu / AFP

In the run-up to Turkey’s general election this summer, the country’s nominally neutral president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, declared: “Give me four hundred parliamentarians on June 7 and let us change the system peacefully.”

It was an ominous threat to the Turkish people. Either deliver Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) the super majority in parliament it needed to change the constitution and allow Erdoğan to continue centralizing power with a new presidential system — or prepare for a deepening of the instability and violence that marked the end of the AKP’s third successive term in office.

The threat carried real weight in a country where each generation has had its own experience of economic and political crisis. The AKP was itself swept to power in 2002 after years of unstable coalitions and a financial crisis that destroyed the credibility of almost every other political party.

The AKP parlayed this somewhat unexpected victory into a formidable electoral bloc, bringing together disparate social forces across Turkey’s notoriously fractured political landscape. To do so, it appealed directly to the sections of society that had become disaffected with the historic failures of Turkey’s state-led economic development. Blending neoliberalism and Turkish Islamism into a novel populism, it railed against a secular elite that purportedly had a stranglehold on political, military, and economic power.

Under the auspices of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the AKP also pushed to “democratize” the state, bringing several important groups into the fold as a result. Efforts to remove the military from Turkish politics won over the liberal intelligentsia. Patronage, through a series of Islamic charities, combined with the opening up of public services (often previously reserved for the military or bureaucrats) drew in the urban poor. And initiating a peace process with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) won the AKP strong support in the country’s Southeast, especially among the large numbers of religious, conservative Kurds.

The AKP also intensified neoliberal economic reforms, which favored the interests of its key social base — the religious, export-oriented manufacturers of central Anatolia — as well the country’s Western-oriented, traditional big capital, who had historically been hostile to Islamist parties.

The AKP’s ability to build such a coalition was substantially aided by the weakness of its opposition. To the right of the AKP, the Nationalist Action Party, an essentially fascist organization founded with the assistance of the CIA, had lost its modus operandi since its armed death quads helped contain the radical left in the ’70s. Its pan-Turkic principles still received support in the most reactionary elements of Turkish society, but the AKP’s neo-Ottoman pretensions helped siphon off some of that backing.

On the Left, there was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) — the party of Turkey’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — which in the 1970s adopted more progressive policies in a bid to become Turkey’s social-democratic party. It never fully established a base within the organized working class, however, and its support remained largely confined to the secular middle classes who staffed the military and bureaucracy. It therefore retained an elitist image that the AKP was able to ruthlessly exploit.

Fast-forward to today, and the CHP — the traditional bastion of state-led development — is now struggling to define itself amid the onslaught of neoliberalism. Also the bearer of the secular Kemalist tradition, the CHP’s progressive potential is constrained by both its stringent (especially anti-Kurdish) nationalism and its association with authoritarian social policies, such as the ban on women wearing head scarves on university campuses.

Outside of parliamentary politics, a once-powerful radical left still hasn’t recovered from its decimation following the 1980 military coup. The generals’ explicit aim was to smash the militant left once and for all and replace it with a populist mixture of Turkish nationalism and conservative Islamic values. So they rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured hundreds of thousands of leftists and “disappeared” thousands of others — removing the main obstacle to bringing neoliberalism to the country.

It was in this political and economic landscape that the AKP became the most powerful political force in modern Turkey — winning election after election with a share of the vote that seemed to inexorably increase. High on victory, Erdoğan saw himself as a national leader who could match, if not surpass, the achievements of Mustafa Kemal himself. He aspired to be crowned executive president in time for the Turkish Republic’s hundredth anniversary in 2023.

In 2011, when the Arab Spring broke out, the AKP was seemingly at its peak. With roots in what is essentially the Turkish branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — and having (by its own understanding) already defeated an archaic, secular, military-backed elite — the party regarded itself as the vanguard of the revolutions.

In the heady days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the party believed its world historical moment had arrived. The AKP was set to lead the reborn region as a neo-Ottoman power.

This self-conception largely explains Turkey’s sudden decision to turn against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who until then had been a close regional ally. For the AKP, Assad’s Baathist regime was now an untenable relic of a bygone era, an impediment to forging a chain of Muslim Brotherhood regimes across the Middle East.

But while the AKP seemed at its strongest, it was at this moment that the seeds were sown for its possible downfall. When protests broke out in Turkey in late May 2013, the government faced them down with the same air of historical purpose they had shown when turning on Assad. For the AKP, such demonstrations were akin to the counter-revolutionary protests against Mohamed Morsi that were just beginning to shake Egypt. They decided to crush them with brute force.

The uprising had its origins in minor protests against the redevelopment of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. But a police crackdown brought people onto the streets across the country and turned a small demonstration into a full-blown uprising. Demonstrators included a wide range of political and social groups — from Kemalists and Football Ultras to Kurdish activists and LGBTQ organizations — frustrated by the AKP’s increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism.

They were all met with the same tear gas and plastic bullets. For the seasoned activists of Turkey’s various leftist and minority movements, this was a familiar experience. For many others, it was the first time they had felt the full repressive force of the state — which not only killed people but used its ideological apparatuses (predominantly in the media) to demonize them as terrorists (most tragically in the case of fifteen-year-old Berkin Elvan).

The reliance on naked state coercion to quell the demonstrations pointed to the limits of the AKP’s hegemonic project. Initially, it seemed such violence would only cost the AKP the liberal intelligentsia’s support and, given their limited social weight, this was more symbolic than decisive.

But as repression increased, the political effects became profound. To many, the experience of Gezi showed that if the police could kill an innocent protester and call him a terrorist in Istanbul, the army could kill an innocent protester and call her a terrorist in Diyarbakır, in Turkey’s Southeast.

This recognition helped catalyze the formation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a coalition that brought together veterans of the Kurdish and leftist movements — who had long struggled to create a unified left — with the newly radicalized of Gezi (some of whom were previously skeptical of Kurdish activism).

Meanwhile, as it became clear that Assad would not be swept away by popular revolution, the AKP became increasingly tolerant of the more radical Islamist groups in the opposition. Not only were such groups fast becoming the most effective military force against the Syrian regime, but they were acting as a bulwark against Kurdish fighters — who were gaining autonomy along Turkey’s border.

Last fall, when ISIS surrounded the Kurdish city of Kobanî — which lies on the Syrian side of the Turkish border — the Turkish military didn’t just refuse to intervene. They violently prevented activists from crossing the border on the Turkish side to break the siege.

Their actions belied the traditional Kemalist defense of the Turkish military as a progressive force, as well as the argument that only a strong, unified Turkish state could stanch the flow of radical Islamism. The Turkish military, that bastion of secularism, had demonstrated its willingness to help the AKP bolster the region’s most reactionary force as long as it hurt the Kurds. A bitter irony, considering the leftist Kurdish resistance was emerging as the only credible progressive force in the region.

Kobanî sped up the political realignment that Gezi had started. In its aftermath, the HDP was able to win the support of the large numbers of conservative Kurds who had previously backed the AKP. And the party also started gaining traction in precincts of the Left where pro-Kurdish parties had traditionally struggled.

The result was historic. To enter the Turkish parliament, parties must capture 10 percent of the national vote. In June, HDP won 13 percent — the first time a party of its kind had crossed the threshold — giving them eighty members of parliament. And they deprived the AKP of its parliamentary majority, scuttling Erdoğan’s presidential dreams and leading him to call for another election in the fall.

Throughout the campaign, the HDP had been subjected to violence and intimidation. Just before people went to the polls, a bomb went off at a rally in Diyarbakır, killing four and injuring more than one hundred. Now, having successfully challenged the existing political order, the violence escalated. On July 20, a coalition of predominantly young leftist and Kurdish groups gathered in the southeastern district of Suruç, planning to join the rebuilding efforts in Kobanî. A suicide bomber attack killed thirty-three and injured over a hundred.

The AKP government’s response was to blame ISIS for the bombing — a pretext used to step up its intervention in Syria. However, while some bombing raids were launched against ISIS, it was Kurdish groups in the regions along the Syrian border who bore the brunt of the military escalation. In doing so, the AKP officially ended the peace process it had negotiated with the PKK and fully aligned itself with the most reactionary sections of the Turkish state apparatus.

Now, in the lead-up to the November 1 elections, the AKP is hoping that images of violent clashes between the Kurdish national movement and the Turkish military will cost the HDP support among nascent backers of the pro-Kurdish movement, pushing the HDP back below 10 percent. They also hope to compensate for declining approval among the Kurds and the liberal intelligentsia by capitalizing on the surge in nationalism.

After last Saturday’s bombing in Ankara, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in solidarity — a testament to the continued bravery of the Turkish opposition movement. They renewed the call for an end to the violence, which they blamed on the state and the AKP government.

While it’s unclear who directly carried out the attack, what is known is that when the Turkish military has been given the green light to wage war in the past, there have always been those within the state willing to use underhanded tactics. And that under the AKP, the security apparatuses have been increasingly tolerant of violent Islamism, especially if it comes at the expense of their old enemy — the radical Kurdish movement.

We also know — from the experience in Suruç — that such atrocities will be used to justify a wider political crackdown against the Left in the name of security and an intensification of the war on the Kurds in the name of counter-terrorism.

In this context, a call for an end to violence has deeply radical implications. Not only does it expose the limits of the AKP’s hegemonic project, which is increasingly reliant on state violence, but it recognizes the state itself as the central source of bloodshed in Turkey. Bringing down the AKP government is thus not enough. The state itself must be challenged, and then transformed in a truly democratic fashion.

The Kurdish national movement and other victims of state violence have long made this argument. But until recently, too many leftists held that the Turkish state was a progressive achievement worth defending. With the experience of Gezi, Kobanî, and now Ankara, this left-Kemalist position has arguably never been more discredited, especially among a new generation of activists.

If the movement for solidarity and peace can be harnessed and sustained by the HDP, a campaign against state violence might finally be able to break with the failures of Kemalism — offering the Turkish left an opportunity for genuine renewal.

Amid the devastation of Ankara, there are glimmers of hope.