Unseating Erdoğan

An interview with
Zafer Ülger

The elections in Turkey today will be a crucial test of the Left's ability to curtail Erdoğan's authoritarian rule.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reuters

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 interviews 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 Zafer Ülger of Başlangıç (The Beginning), an amalgamation of several groups and individuals that engages in working-class political organizing. Jacobin is also pleased to publish the pair’s conversations with members of Toplumsal Özgürlük (Social Freedom), a Marxist-Leninist party initiative, 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.


AK JR

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

ZU

I am forty years old, and at the moment I am working on my dissertation on development economics. I’ve been a socialist political activist since I was sixteen. Currently I am active in neighborhood politics and self-organized projects like the first social squat in Istanbul (Don Quixote), but also in the independent election initiative 10’dan sonra (Past Ten).

Başlangıç (The Beginning) is the name of my organization. Başlangıç was founded after the Gezi Park protests in order to unite the fragmented left in Turkey, as an initiative of several groups and individuals.

Ideologically we’re focused on working-class political organizing, and we consider ourselves Marxists. However, we believe that we cannot — like some Marxists in the nineteenth and twentieth century — limit our political activity to the production sphere, but have to be engaged with many other social struggles like the ecology movement or the struggle for the commons.

Primarily we are active in the anti-gentrification movement, but also initiated independent unions. These militant unions are basically organized horizontally in a bottom-up way in contrast to classical unions, which work with functionaries and in a top-down way. Additionally, we publish a newspaper and have an independent radio-station.

Referring to our program, our stated goal is socialist revolution, so we believe Turkey to be a developed capitalist country already. Though we do not believe that the socialist revolution should be the property of one party or organization, but a result of a spontaneous social eruption and insurgency.

The task of revolutionary organizations and groups is to struggle within these insurgencies for a revolutionary perspective and to intervene in order to affect the direction of the struggle. If they are successful the character of spontaneous insurgencies and struggles change and lead to a socialist revolution.

In my opinion, this is an attribute that distinguishes us from the anarchist movement. Although we’re also struggling for the abolition of the bourgeois state and the replacement of state institutions by organizations of direct democracy like soviets, we also think that within a radical transformation revolutionary organizations should not be dissolved and are still necessary.<

AK JR

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?

ZU

Primarily, Gezi led to an intensification of activities in many different social struggles, and these struggles are now noticed by a significant part of the people.

The LGBTQ movement, for example, gained a lot of support, but also the anti-gentrification movement and class struggles were strengthened by the dynamics of Gezi. Simultaneously, Gezi led to an exchange and network of many different activists and struggles. People got to know each other joining the same struggle, and prejudices were dropped by all sides.

It is also important that the socialist left is now not isolated anymore and the work of the different organizations are being noticed by many more people than before. But most importantly, Gezi brought about new methods and ways of social struggle.

Additionally, there are two more significant changes we should point out: first, Gezi had a big impact on the generation of the 1990s, which for so many years was described as the “lost generation.” Gezi politicized this generation and helped it to develop a political perspective. At the same time, Gezi articulated the desire for horizontal organization in a direct democratic way.

So to answer your question directly: Yes, of course, Gezi is still alive!

Concerning the effects Gezi had on the left socialist movement in Turkey, we can say that the more traditional parties and organizations that were not able to understand Gezi had to face big eruptions within their organizations. For example, the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) broke apart for this reason.

On the other hand we as well, Başlangıç, are a product of the Gezi insurgency. We drew the conclusion that the traditional socialist left that originated in the late ’70s is no longer a reference point, and for that reason founded our own organization. Since we’re children of the ’90s generation, members of our organization are basically between thirty and forty years old.

Concerning the AKP regime, we can say that it experienced a strong shift to the right by splitting from the liberals within the party. Liberal support from outside the party significantly declined, as well. This is one of the reasons why the AKP now counts on polarization instead of conviction or integration in order to stay in power.

Since Gezi, the AKP regime is more than ever based on terror and creating an atmosphere of fear, to keep their supporters on their side and to stay in power. At the same time, the AKP plays the Sunni card in order to mobilize their conservative and religious voters.

AK JR

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?

ZU

The struggle in Kobanê encouraged those parts of the Left that kept some distance from the Kurdish liberation movement in the past to get to it in the past year. Now we face the situation that some of these political forces are keeping their distance again. But we have to point out that, for example, the Halkevleri (People’s Houses) that are traditionally rather reserved towards the Kurdish movement now call for voting for the Kurdish-backed HDP.

Those parts of the socialist left that supported the Kurdish liberation struggle anyway deepened their solidarity in the past months. Apart from that, Kobanê of course had a big impact on the Kurdish and Alevi communities, especially concerning the upcoming elections in June. We can say that some parts of the Alevi community — traditionally voting for the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) — are now voting for the HDP. And also, some other voting groups that traditionally tended to vote for Kemalist parties now show some sympathy for the HDP.

On the other hand, the AKP always had some support in the more conservative and traditionalist parts of the Kurdish population — bound by the discourse of the same religion (Sunni). Within this voting group as well, we see the tendency of a shift towards the HDP.

This new tendency has a lot to do with the fact that the CHP lost its credibility as a reliable and effective opposition. But even more importantly, the Kurdish movement now, after the battle of Kobanê, stands for real resistance against the threat of the Turkish-backed ISIS/Nusra, and in the terms of many secular people in Turkey that means against political Islam.

This fact had a big influence especially on the Alevi community, which is persecuted by ISIS in Syria, because they’re considered to be infidels or heretics. Equally, Erdoğan’s open support for ISIS and Nusra militias and his hostility towards the Kurdish struggle in Kobanê alienated his Kurdish voter base and made many Kurds turn their backs on the AKP.

AK JR

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?

ZU

The upcoming elections have a big importance. Turkey is amid an economic crisis. Capitalism in Turkey seems to be incompatible now with the old political system and enforces new and more repressive forms of governance. This is exactly what Erdogan and the AKP stand for: the introduction of a presidential system.

Well, in fact, it is the case that at the moment a majority of the monopoly capitalists don’t support Erdoğan staying in power. On the other hand, they’re comfortable with the idea of a presidential system in general without Erdoğan in power.

For Erdoğan himself the upcoming elections will be an election between life and death. If he and his party can’t establish the presidential system, this would mark a decisive defeat for him and the AKP. I don’t think that an AKP without Erdoğan can consolidate itself. But, on the other hand, if Erdoğan and his party win the upcoming elections, this would lead to big problems for the population in general, but for the socialist left in Turkey particularly. Because a presidential system and Erdoğan being the president will dramatically increase the authoritarianism of the Turkish state.

For these reasons, we are facing a tense situation right now. The atmosphere in general is contentious, as you can see clearly from the number of attacks on HDP offices and the two bombs that recently exploded in two bigger cities. The biggest obstacle for establishing the presidential system in Turkey is the HDP, because it can ruin the AKP’s chances to govern without being dependent on a coalition with one of the other parties — which would also lead to a renunciation of the presidential system.

AK JR

The Peoples’ Democratic Party seems to be a popular, leftist force that could 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?

ZU

I would like to answer the question about the character of the HDP by referring to the Syriza comparison. Regarding their respective programmatic agenda, the HDP and Syriza seem to be quite similar. In fact, they are two different formations in different social circumstances.

Syriza was a coalition of several small socialist groups that gained popularity in the context of several waves of social movements in Greece. I would characterize Syriza for this very reason as a centrist force, which means that it fluctuates between social democracy and revolutionary politics.

The HDP, on the other hand, gained a lot of its strength by its active involvement with the Kurdish liberation movement within its organization. This movement now tries to generalize the experiences and struggles from a certain part of Turkey. This is a new development. The upcoming elections will show whether the generalization of this movement from Kurdistan to the entirety of Turkey will work or not.

This development of the HDP and the experiences of the Kurdish liberation movement, especially the ones concerning the Rojava revolution, meet the dynamics of self-organization in Western Turkey, which have their origins in the Gezi insurgency. In parts of the Gezi movement, the HDP gained a lot of support and sympathy, because of the social transformation in Rojava. The meeting point of both movements is exactly the idea of a decentralized democratic autonomy instead of a strong authoritarian central power.

We support the HDP in the upcoming elections within the scope of our election initiative 10’dan sonra, which consists of the remains of the neighborhood solidarity committees that were founded after the Gezi insurgency; of groups like Müşterekler, which is active in urban struggles; and of members of Başlangıç and independent individuals.

The reason why we support the HDP from the outside and are not part of its organization is that HDP, referring to its agenda, has indeed a progressive perspective we share, but the way it is organized doesn’t correspond to its program.

This is the reason why we decided to form an independent organization to work on the topic of elections in a horizontal and non-hierarchical way. Our first initiative formed in Istanbul, but others in Ankara, Izmir, Eskişehir, and Mersin followed.

Basically 10’dan sonra works on principles of local self-organization, which means that the local branches work independent from each other, but have common mobilization material and share the same organizational concepts. The only important precondition to take part in 10’dan sonra is to share some principles — for example, the denial of the presidential system or the support for LGBTQ rights.

Concerning the mobilizational work, we organize stands, house calls, or other events — for example, an ecological bicycle tour on May 24 that led to a discussion event referring to the relations between ecology, urban politics, and capitalism.

Regarding the risks of support for the HDP on the other hand, let me simply say the following for now: we can state that supporting the HDP from a revolutionary perspective causes some problems, but actually both Başlangıç and 10’dan sonra are not directly affected by those problems since we’re not organized within the HDP.