Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s slim victory in the referendum to eliminate Turkey’s parliamentary system is the latest in a series of elections won by xenophobic right-wing forces in conditions of economic insecurity and social upheaval that one might naively have expected to benefit the Left. Insofar as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) clique has successfully shifted the blame for the country’s recent miseries onto malign foreign forces, events in Turkey display some similarity with recent successes of the resurgent nationalist Right in the West.
Yet leftists should be careful not to make overhasty analogies between the referendum and Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory or the strong showing so far of Marine Le Pen. Erdoğan’s referendum victory differs radically from these other reactionary triumphs in its scope, content and the circumstances in which it took place.
Certainly in none of these other cases did the election commission, acting under pressure from government officials, change the rules in the middle of the voting process to permit almost two million ballots lacking the proper stamp affixed by a ballot box official. Though we don’t know where these ballots came from or whether they were all marked “Yes,” the existence of a potentially decisive set of defective ballots delegitimizes the referendum in the eyes of those who voted “No.”
A referendum at the end of a nine-month-long state of emergency (which has now been extended still further) can hardly be expected to yield a democratic outcome. There was no campaign to speak of for the “No” camp, since the government and its supporters used every means at their disposal to prevent one. Every arm of the state including even the clergy and public transportation did its part, as “Yes” statements resounded from the pulpit at Friday prayers and the supporters got free bus rides to “Yes” rallies. Statements from pro-government politicians got ten times as much air time on “mainstream” TV channels, both public and private, as was given to their opponents. A rare TV anchor who dared to tell viewers his preference for “No” was immediately fired.
On the landscape of Turkish cities this spring, whole rows of “Yes” posters were visible at every highway interchange while “No” posters were nowhere to be seen. People handing out leaflets or hanging posters for the No campaign regularly faced arrests, intimidation and violence from police and pro-government crowds. On one occasion, a knife-wielding gang attacked a “No”-voting student group on the campus of a public university, and the administration responded by bussing the targeted students—not the gang, who went untouched—off the campus. Such incidents were too numerous to keep track of, and some of them culminated in murder, including on the referendum day itself.
Under these conditions, large swaths of the Turkish population already accustomed to authoritarian methods had some powerful emotional incentives to seek still further displays of centralized power. In a country multiply traumatized by a very bloody coup attempt on July 15 and almost innumerable bombings and mass shootings by Islamic State (IS) and a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) splinter group, the government used its media power to portray all of the President’s opponents as coup-plotters and terrorists, or else tools in the hands of such. As a result of this political “war on terror” the two co-chairs of the nation’s third-largest party cast their votes from prison.
Yet aside from the calls to “stability” and “security,” another theme resonated with increasing stridency in the “Yes” campaign: the liquidation of the “Old Turkey.” Consider the following piece of twitter-art by a columnist at the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit:
The departed High Judiciary’s husband, son of the old Turkish Armed Forces, brother-in-law of the deep-state media, brother-in-law of the Çapulcu universities, England’s dearest champion
THE OLD TURKEY
passed away on April 16, 2017. On Monday April 17 after a funeral service at Anıtkabir (i.e. Atatürk’s mausoleum—ed.), his body will be laid to rest in the family crypt at Buckingham Palace.
May he rest in peace…His Family
With its multiple references to the British monarchy, this “obituary” reaches back to what had until recently been the paranoid fringes of the Islamist Right, where conspiracy theorists claim (for instance) that Atatürk was a Jew in the service of British intelligence.
It seems likely that such groups have inched closer to power since the downfall of the Gülen movement, which had given Islamic conservative ideology a more respectable veneer even if its methods turned out on July 15 to be as murderous as anyone’s. For some time now, the few remaining oppositional newspapers have been rife with reports of previously marginal, more “radical” religious communities gaining a foothold in the bureaucracy upon the abrupt expulsion of the Atlanticist, suit-and-tie wearing Gülenists.
Two of the biggest constitutional changes that passed on April 16 are the elimination of the Prime Minister’s office and the President’s prerogative to declare a state of emergency under a specified list of “crisis” situations, including even “economic crisis.” Whereas the first of these measures amounts to a nullification of the Cabinet as an alternative source of power—the President will now convene the Cabinet, whose members thereby give up their seats in the legislative assembly (meclis)—the second measure clearly envisions the suspension of the meclis itself as a check on the President.
Interestingly, the amendments do not make the President immune to a majoritarian challenge from below. For the first time in the Republic, he will have the power to dissolve the meclis and call for new elections at will, not only in cases when a deadlocked parliament fails to form a government. Yet the decision to dissolve the legislature will trigger a new election in which the President’s own seat is at stake. Seen together, what these new measures most steel Erdoğan against is a challenge from within his own party.
Clearly Erdoğan does not want anything resembling the Gülenist conspiracy ever happening again. Yet what about the secular, proletarian, Kurdish and Alevi oppositions? It is a measure of the ruling clique’s confidence in having neutralized these oppositions—whether through triangulation, the harsh securitarian measures put in place since Gezi, or the ruthless suppression of Kurdish revolt—that it has come to focus so overwhelmingly, if tacitly, on the internal threat. The only thing that could conceivably upend Erdoğan’s juggernaut would be for these groups, so deeply at odds in some respects, to come together around a new democratic narrative that might transcend the shared opposition out of which it is born.
In the mining region of Zonguldak, the last outpost of organized labor as a political force, the “no” vote eked out a slim majority. Otherwise the sharp polarization of the electoral map was more readily legible along the lines of culture than class. The Alevi heartland of Dersim / Tunceli, lately a fertile ground for Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) votes but also the ancestral home of Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, was solidly for “no,” as were the European provinces west of Istanbul, at the other end of the spectrum from poor, rural Dersim both economically and geographically, but united in opposition to the Sunni-identitarian Right.
As Işık Sarıhan has observed, electoral geography has changed little over the last few elections, with a Kurdish belt in the southeast joining a narrow coastal strip from Hatay on the northeast corner of the Mediterranean all the way around the Aegean and the Bosporus to European Turkey—in opposition to the central and eastern Anatolian heartland, where both hard-right nationalism and political Islam have deep roots. As Sarıhan notes, this time Ankara and Istanbul swung narrowly to Erdoğan’s opponents, handing the country’s three largest cities (including of course “infidel Izmir”) to the “No” vote. Perhaps the two hundred thousand people who have lost their livelihoods in the post-coup civil service purges helped turn Ankara and Istanbul; urban Kurdish constituencies presumably played a role as well.
If Sarıhan’s perception of continuity was acute, on Fox TV the night of the referendum, mainstream pundit Ertuğrul Özkök noticed a pattern going deeper into the past. The “three Turkeys” he saw delineated in the referendum results, he said, voted almost identically in the referendum of 1987, in which the question was whether or not to suspend the “emergency” measures first put in place by the 1980 military coup. Özkök’s conclusion was that the coastal belt, better educated and more economically developed than the rest of the country, and the Kurdish provinces were on both occasions more willing to vote for democracy than were the citizens of the conservative interior. In 1987 the democratic alliance narrowly won, while in 2017 it narrowly lost.
Then as now, these regions voted for democracy for different reasons. In the run-up to the referendum, a Kemalist march celebrating Mustafa Kemal Paşa (i.e. Atatürk in his previous guise as a military hero) became an ever-present anthem of resistance in secularist coastal cities. Clearly the song has no appeal for the predominantly Kurdish southeast that furnished the largest local landslides for the “No” campaign, in spite of various attempts at voter suppression. Yet in any conceivable resurrection of Turkish democracy such groups will have to work together.
It has been difficult for the Left to forge such a unity under the banner of socialism, because of the way the development path of a semi-peripheral economy under neoliberalism has led to the growth of an informally employed, internal-immigrant lumpen-proletariat, outpacing the ability of the traditional working class to compete politically. Under conditions that Samir Amin has called “lumpen-development,” Marx’s warning that that most marginalized of classes constitutes “the worst possible ally” for socialists has unfortunately come to look entirely accurate, even if one can hardly blame the groups in question for supporting the rulers in return for short-term aid.
Taking advantage of a situation in which speculative foreign capital flowed into the real-estate and construction sectors of the global periphery, due to the secular stagnation of the productive economy in the core capitalist economies, the AKP has been able to pull off an implausible agenda of privatizing and commodifying everything in sight while also showering small favors on its supporters. Combining an accelerated war on labor unions with the targeted expansion of certain welfare programs—especially since the completion of an IMF agreement in 2008 enabled a return to rising public spending—Erdoğan’s regime has overseen a transformation of the welfare state into a patrimonial system for distributing goods to loyal populations.
Accordingly, social struggle in Erdoğan’s Turkey has often meant a struggle of the “periphery” against the “center,” with the former comprising workers in the informal sector, socially conservative households in the impoverished countryside, small capitalists and that section of big capital with either cronyistic ties to the ruling clique or religious conservative sensibilities (the so-called “green capital”). The “center” includes both white-collar professionals and what is left of the class-conscious workers’ movement; both unions and middle-class professional organizations have been public enemies in the AKP era. Due to the particularities of Turkish development, this “center-periphery” divide is not just a matter of “false consciousness,” but has a material basis to it.
Now global economic conditions have changed and the bill for the AKP’s speculation-led growth policies has come due. Per capita income has declined over the last few years, and official unemployment has reached 13%. In the last year the closure of workplaces has accelerated and international ratings agencies have a pessimistic outlook on the country’s banks. It stands to reason that Erdoğan had to hurry up and solidify his power before the dam breaks.
Yet we cannot assume that an economic crisis would sweep away the faith that half the population still has in its President. As Slavoj Žižek likes to say, “it’s the ideology, stupid!” The seven years since the last constitutional referendum have been busily spent redesigning the nation’s institutions, from the judiciary to the media to education, to project maximum submission to the ruling clique’s increasingly paranoid ideology.
In education, both systemic reforms passed by the meclis in 2012 and a new curriculum designed by the Education Ministry during the state of emergency put into practice Erdoğan’s stated drive to (as he understands it) “raise a religious generation,” even to the point of gathering up and destroying books on human evolution while supplying elementary schools with textbooks and other materials promoting “martyrdom” and child marriage.
The AKP has cleared the pine-grove in front of the Mevlana (Rumi) shrine in Konya, the country’s foremost domestic pilgrimage site, to make way for party rallies, and planted party propagandists among tour guides on pilgrimages to Mecca. To be sure, Erdoğan’s movement may never totally colonize religious life in Turkey, and many Turks who fast during Ramadan and attend Friday prayer sessions also vote for secularist parties. Yet in its project of consolidating a de facto state religion of obedience, the government has a powerful weapon in the Directory of Religious Affairs—founded, ironically, by Atatürk.
On the ideological, social, electoral and legal fronts the democratic opposition, both socialist and otherwise, faces grave challenges. Yet as we have seen again and again over the last several years, Turkey’s borders encompass some astonishingly courageous people. Perhaps the most encouraging sign at the moment is that so many can find it in themselves to say that “the struggle is only beginning.”