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Turkey’s Rejuvenated Left

Meral

Turkey goes to the polls today for parliamentary elections. How has the struggle in Kobanê shaped the country's politics?

Leftist fighters in Kobanê, Syria.

Interview by
Jan Ronahi
Alp Kayserilioğlu

Today, 550 members of the Turkish national assembly (TBMM) will be elected. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which have taken the country in both an Islamist and neoliberal direction, are seeking a commanding majority.

If the AKP secures enough seats, Erdoğan will push for constitutional change that would transform the Turkish political system from a parliamentary government into a presidential one, granting him sweeping executive powers.

On the Left, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an alliance of Kurdish and leftist Turkish parties, is seeking to stand in his way. They hope to reach the 10 percent threshold needed to enter parliament and thwart Erdoğan’s program.

Despite Friday’s terrorist attack on a Peoples’ Democratic Party rally, reported on for Jacobin by Caroline McKusick, the mood is hopeful. As one supporter of the party put it, “I believe the HDP will get 10 percent of the vote, and with that victory we will go to parliament and put our hands on Erdogan’s throat.”

Jan Ronahi and Alp Kayserilioğlu have been in Istanbul interviewing several left parties and organizations for Jacobin. The discussions cover a range of topics, including the Gezi Park protests, the battle in Kobanê and elsewhere in Kurdistan, the upcoming elections, and the prospects for the Peoples Democratic Party.

Here Ronahi and Kayserilioğlu interview Meral of Toplumsal Özgürlük (Social Freedom), a Marxist-Leninist party initiative. Jacobin is also pleased to publish the pair’s conversations with members of Başlangıç (The Beginning), a socialist organization, and the People’s Communist Party of Turkey.

The views expressed by the respective organizations are divergent and sometimes controversial, but they are published here to allow readers a glimpse inside the Turkish left.


JR AK

Who are you and what kind of organizing are you involved with?

I’m twenty-five and a member of the Marxist-Leninist party initiative Toplumsal Özgürlük (Social Freedom). The ideological foundation of our organization are the works of Dr Hikmet Kıvılcımlı, an important theoretician of Marxism in Turkey and member of the “first” Communist Party of Turkey (TKP), founded in 1920.

We are convinced that the Turkish bourgeoisie could not, because of its own weak character, thoroughly install a bourgeois-democratic order and at the same time the people couldn’t force it onto the bourgeoisie due to a low independent participation in the revolution. These are the reasons that still today lead to significant problems of democracy and a strong repression of different religious and national minorities within the country — for example, the Kurds and Alevis — as well as to the authoritarian state form.

As Marxists-Leninists we aim, of course, to achieve a socialist society, but we also think that before a socialist revolution in Turkey can take place, Turkish society is in need of a democratic revolution. That is to say, we need a revolution that enables and facilitates the fundamental political and cultural freedoms in a fight against the monopoly bourgeoisie that has no interest in these.

In Turkey, this is only possible with, among other things, massive participation of the people in their own political forms, that is councils and assemblies, since the monopoly bourgeoisie itself in Turkey has no drive towards democracy. This leads to the point that the democratic republic which comes from the democratic revolution is a system of dual power, that is between the interests of the bourgeoisie and the workers.

It is out of this moment of dual power alone that it is possible to push for the socialist revolution that, for us, is intrinsically linked to the democratic revolution. However, it will be the concrete power relations that will determine who will be stronger in that system of dual power, how much the monopoly bourgeoisie will be curtailed or even abolished, under which concrete conditions will the socialist revolution be linked to the democratic revolution and how long the system of dual power will prevail.

Therefore the initial point of our political activity is the working class, but in line with our theoretical framework the organization and mobilization of other parts of the population and a common struggle with them is important to us as well.

This is precisely what we call democratic and anticapitalist dynamics that constitute an important part of our struggles. This is the reason why we are also involved in the LGBTQ, ecological, student, and feminist movement. And, of course, we also actively support the Kurdish liberation movement.

JR AK

In Europe, the prevailing perception is that with the eviction of the Gezi Park occupation, the movement is all but dead. Do you agree with this perspective? What do you think about the developments within society since Gezi — especially concerning the socialist left in Turkey and the AKP?

The Gezi insurgency was a popular uprising, a social explosion which took place as a result of the resistance in the years before Gezi to both the neoliberal and neoconservative policies of the AKP regime, the massive restrictions of democratic rights, and the increasing pressure on the working class.

The explosion itself ended, of course — that’s always the case with spontaneous social dynamics. Every now and then they explode, then they further develop in the background. What is clear, however, is that Gezi marks the beginning of a new historical period in Turkey. It had and still has an enormous impact on many parts of Turkish society.

Before Gezi the socialist left was isolated within Turkish society, while the masses remained apolitical. The insurgency had the effect of massively increasing the politicization of broad layers of Turkish society and, even more importantly, the wall of fear that prevented the people from rising up collapsed.

All in all, Gezi confirmed our thesis of the “democratic revolution,” as Gezi has vividly shown the actuality of democratic and anticapitalist dynamics — strong participation of Alevis, youth, LGBTQ people, women, working-class people, Sunnis, and others addressing their own peculiar democratic problems through the organizational models of people’s assemblies and councils, both of which form a central part of our agenda.

And we can also see that since Gezi, struggles and resistances along the lines of democratic and anticapitalist dynamics have massively increased. A new spirit of resistance and struggle for our own rights has been born and now animates the people.

Therefore, Gezi was not really an insurgency of the socialist left; it had its own dynamics. The socialist left in Turkey was forced to change, that is to say it was forced to understand that these events mark the beginning of a new era and that the methods of political activity have to change. Those parts of the socialist left that try to understand this fact will experience a boom within the next years.

The other part, which refuses to understand this change, will experience deep conflicts within their organizations, and that will lead to splits and breakups — as the split of the former TKP has already shown. This is always the case in these kind of historical situations where political organizations do not or cannot cope with the driving power of the people.

The AKP regime is currently facing its downfall, because of different failures and contradictions that appeared in its domestic and foreign policies. In its foreign policies it failed, among other things, concerning its aggressive involvement in the Syrian war. The AKP regime was not able to get directly involved by invading Syria. As with the Gezi insurgency, the AKP lost legitimacy within broad layers of society by murdering activists in the streets.

Behind the curtains the AKP broke with its closest ally: the movement of Fethullah Gülen. This split also led to the uncovering of several corruption affairs the AKP was and is directly involved in. We can say that Gezi was the historical mistake of the AKP. Whenever the AKP ends, it will be Gezi that marked its final determining decline. Yet, Gezi had an impact on all political organizations in Turkey — after the insurgency the Kemalist Republican People Party (CHP) suffered a split as well, between its nationalist and “left” faction.

JR AK

Contrary to Erdoğan’s statement that Kobanê was about to fall, the city resisted the invasion of ISIS and the al-Qaeda branch Nusra Front. What consequences does the battle of Kobanê have for the socialist left in Turkey and the upcoming elections in June?

At this point, it is important to say that the democratic revolution in Rojava at first didn’t have any effects on Turkish politics at all. It was the struggle for Kobanê that had a huge impact within Turkish society, and this has to do with the fact that the struggle for Kobanê took place after the Gezi insurgency, while the Rojava revolution started long before Kobanê became a topic in the media.

The fact that ISIS holds territory right next to the Turkish border sensitized especially women and ethnic/religious minorities like the Alevis or the Armenians. The Kurdish movement simultaneously worked very effectively organizing and popularizing the struggle in Kobane. Through the association of these dynamics of Kobanê and Gezi, the Kurdish liberation movement gained a lot of support — beyond its usual basis — and forced almost all political forces of society, and especially of the socialist left, to reorganize their relationship to the Kurdish question.

Large parts of the Turkish socialist left that had shown some distance towards the Kurdish liberation movement before, now showed more solidarity to the Kurdish struggle and had, at any rate, to develop a crystal clear stance towards the Kurdish liberation movement, either affirmative or negative. Others that were already close to the Kurdish movement are now fighting together with the People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Rojava.

Additionally, and as a result of Gezi, we witnessed a broad solidarity movement with the Kurdish struggle in Rojava in Western Turkey. Here, the struggle was primarily seen as an anti-imperialist one that many participated in in some way. One of our comrades, Kader Ortakaya, tried to join the struggle in Kobanê, for example, but she was murdered by the Turkish military right after she crossed the border.

The increasing popular legitimacy of the Kurdish liberation struggle strongly affects the elections and the voting mobility. The Kurdish-supported HDP has gained approval among two groups of voters in particular: the Alevi community — traditionally supporting the Kemalist CHP — and those conservative and religious parts of the Kurdish population that were hitherto close to the AKP.

Both groups feel alienated by the open support of Erdoğan for the jihadist groups ISIS and Nusra in Syria. In these groups of voters the Kurdish militias were recognized to be the only force truly fighting the Islamists and therefore actually defending Turkish borders.

The result was a big loss in legitimacy for the AKP regime within their traditional voting bloc. Both the Gezi insurgency and the struggle in Kobanê became an experience of rejuvenation and revitalization for the socialist left in Turkey and brought them closer to broad parts of the population. We can already feel the change in atmosphere — today it is again popular to be a socialist and a revolutionary in Turkey, like it was before the coup d’etat and the military junta in the 1980s.

JR AK

In your opinion, do the parliamentary elections have any significance for the Turkish left and the society in general? In what kind of atmosphere do they take place?

Elections in general still have a high significance for the peoples of Turkey. They are seen as an instrument to express and bring their will to power.

We as Marxists-Leninists have the task to form a strong alternative bloc in the parliament. The upcoming elections in particular are viewed as a historical turning point. They will determine if the AKP regime, already thirteen years in power, will fall or not. In addition to this fact, the circumstances of the elections are very precarious: the elections take place amid economic crisis, attacks on the working class, and a rise in repression of democratic rights.

Parallel to that, there is a rise in rapes and violence towards women, and the ethnic/religious minorities in Turkey fear the military success of ISIS in Syria. Because of these circumstances and because Gezi meant a defeat for Erdogan, the AKP is losing initiative, and we can already witness cracks from within.

The AKP reacts to this fact by imposing violence and terror. Besides, the people realize ever more that the Kemalist CHP has not really constituted an alternative in the last thirteen years, while the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), often called the “Grey Wolves,” is gaining support and reorganizing.

Compared to these parties, the Kurdish-backed HDP seems to be the only realistic and relevant alternative for many people. That’s also why it is supported by many socialist organizations. This is precisely the reason why the AKP regime is creating an atmosphere of fear. There have been several dozens attacks on HDP electoral bureaus. The AKP wants to further escalate this since it can cling to power only through fear and terror anymore.

JR AK

The Peoples’ Democratic Party seems to be a popular, leftist force that could be able to breach the 10 percent electoral threshold and gain seats in parliament. What is the HDP? There are voices that already claim the HDP could be the Turkish version of Syriza. What do you think about this comparison?

We support the HDP, but are not part of its organization. The HDP is an umbrella organization, or rather umbrella party, of different political forces, like the Kurdish movement, different socialist and democratic organizations. We are not a member of HDP because its agenda contains only a radical democratic, but not a socialist perspective.

Instead of being a member in HDP, we’re organized in the Democratic Congress of Peoples (HDK). The HDK existed even before the HDP and is more of a coalition of different democratic, anticapitalist, and socialist forces organized in the form of a council or assembly. The HDP was originally founded merely as the parliamentary wing of HDK, but the hierarchy between HDK and HDP, in which the party was the inferior institution, turned upside down over time. Now the party is the dominant institution in the relationship between the two.

Regarding the risks and dangers of the HDP, one has to point out, of course, that the party is organized as a bourgeois party, and underlines the corresponding limitations in practice. The peculiar dynamic and momentum of council or assembly-like organizations beyond parliament are of no real significance for the HDP anymore other than for collecting electoral votes.

Along the same lines, the agenda and program of the HDP is articulated within the frame of bourgeois society. There is a danger that leftist, revolutionary tendencies and organizations might disintegrate. Already now we can notice that some revolutionary organizations that got involved in HDP are losing their dynamics and autonomy and forgetting about their own tasks. And this tendency will continue, and there is the danger that Marxist and socialist organizations like the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP) or the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP), who are organized within the HDP at the moment, will lose their socialist character.

We always preferred the HDK, because this kind of organization is much broader and a better fit for the political circumstances in Turkey, insofar as a coalition of democratic, anticapitalist, and socialist forces is the aim. Because it is the HDK in which ideologically diverse organizations and parties can come together in council- or assembly-like forms to build a coalition of democratic, anticapitalist, and socialist forces and dynamics, and make the people develop and gain their own initiative.

The HDP, in our opinion, should be seen as an instrument for elections and not as a focal point for organization. Unfortunately, at the moment, it is the other way around. Though, just to make that clear, let me add that we are not skeptical towards the party concept as such. We merely think that it is not possible to organize the variety of different progressive groups under one banner in the current situation.

Concerning the comparison with Syriza, the political circumstances in Turkey are completely different compared to those in Greece. But yes, putting the specific circumstances in Turkey on one side for a moment, the HDP could possibly become a Turkish Syriza. We are against this tendency for the reasons which I just talked about.