Poulantzasian Themes for Understanding Turkey’s Political Crisis

by Ali Behran Ozcelik

The Turkish state is in crisis. To intervene effectively the left must recognise that this as a political crisis, and one that has been years in the making.

First published: 01 April, 2014 | Category: Foreign policy, International, Philosophy and Theory, Politics, The State

On 17 December 2013, the sons of three Turkish cabinet members, the head of a state-owned bank and the mayor of a municipality in Istanbul were taken into custody in a wave of raids sparked by allegations of corruption and bribery. The Prime Minister responded by a move which ‘effectively stalled the probe’. Since then, the political turmoil in the country has only deepened. ‘Almost every evening since Dec. 17’, writes the journalist Kadri Gürsel, ‘Turks have been listening to audio recordings leaked on YouTube, starring Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’. We have seen the police and a state prosecutor stop a truck on suspicion of carrying weapons to Syria which was in fact being escorted by the intelligence organisation of the same state.  Turkey is without a doubt passing through what even the bourgeois media outlets quickly and rightly called a ‘political crisis’.

To the extent that it reshuffles the cards in Turkish politics, this crisis presents an opportunity for the left. Indeed, the left earned this favorable conjuncture itself by flocking to the streets during the glorious June Uprising. The uprising challenged the already weak consensus among the components of the Turkish power bloc and exacerbated the contradictions within it to the level of a political crisis. But one should never underestimate the capacity of the capitalist state to absorb opposition to one failed bourgeois hegemony by channelling it into another. Indeed, the leadership of the main opposition party, the centre-left and secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), is moving further and further to the right with the hope of coming to power, and it looks well placed to refashion a new bourgeois hegemony at the expense of the more radical elements in its supporter base.

To intervene effectively, the left needs to correctly diagnose this conjuncture.  This means not reducing what is clearly a political crisis to narrow economic factors (whether by emphasising the ‘proletarianization of the middle classes’ or the symbolism of the trees in Gezi Park); nor reducing the politics of the region simply to ‘US interests’.  In this article, the June Uprising, whilst thoroughly unique, is understood as a symptom of a political crisis which has been in the making for years.  It is a crisis that was building long before the June Uprising and keeps unfolding afterwards, as is clear from this ‘graft probe’ showdown. To adequately contextualise this unfolding crisis, the main lineages in Turkish politics need first to be identified.

Secularism versus Political Islam

Secularism in Turkey, unlike in the West, is not the legacy of a struggle waged by the rising bourgeoisie against religious authorities. Rather it rests on the fact that the Kemalist founders of Turkey looked at the results of that struggle and deemed secularism necessary for building a modern nation-state modelled on the Western example. In this sense, it is fair to say that secularism in Turkey has generally been experienced as oppression rather than emancipation. Politicians have sought to capitalise on popular resistance to this state-led secularism and this has meant some impressive election victories for a number of right-wing non-Kemalist figures not obsessed with secularism, from Adnan Menderes and Turgut Özal, to the current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The Turkish military meanwhile, which has played a central role in protecting Turkey’s particular form of bourgeois rule, has assumed a somewhat contradictory role in relation to Turkish secularism. Ever since Turkey joined NATO, the military sought to open a space for ‘political Islam’ to act as a bulwark against the ‘Red Menace’. This it did most ‘militantly’ after the coup d’état in 1980, only to see ‘political Islam’ in the country become its own Frankenstein from the 1990s onwards. Thereafter the military presented itself ever more so as a bulwark of secularism against Turkey’s ‘Islamists’. Indeed, in 1997 it forced the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign after the February 28 memorandum.

The military’s role in Turkish politics has been granted enormous strength and legitimacy by the decades-long war on the Kurds. As with most third world social formations, heavy-handed state practices were developed in Turkey in response to difficulties in building a bourgeois hegemony. And after the expulsion of the Armenians and Greeks, the Kurds were the hardest-hit victims of authoritarian state practices. This oppression became all the more barbaric after the 1980 coup d’état. Lest one forgets it in the dust of Turkey’s June Uprising of 2013, the Kurdish struggle has historically represented the biggest challenge to bourgeois rule in Turkey, making it questionable to larger sections of the society as decades went by.

The Islamic fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie, itself oppressed by this military tutelage, represents – even if only slightly – a different relation to Kurds than the secularist bourgeois fraction, which had previously dominated most state apparatuses, if not always the governing parties. It is no coincidence therefore that the most concrete – albeit still limited – steps Turkey has taken towards negotiations and settlement in the Kurdish conflict were taken during the rule of Islamic figures like Turgut Özal and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

This was the context in terms of the balance of class forces in Turkey when in 2002 national elections brought to power the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Islamic bourgeois fraction it represents. This fraction of Turkey’s capitalist class is different from the secularist bourgeois fraction. To the extent that it was able to associate the heavy-handed state practices of the past with the secularist bourgeoisie, it was able to attract intellectuals and garner popular support. Relatively smaller in size, it went on to prosper by relying on the state-subsidies the AKP provided, angering the secularist fraction. The intensification of these contradictions destabilized the power bloc and thereby became a major source of political instability to date.

Intra-state contradictions and popular struggles

The secularist bourgeoisie adapted itself to the new realities of the country’s politics. After all, a majority government after years of fragile coalitions was promising in terms of stability, something desperately needed in the aftermath of the massive 2001 crisis. From the priority assigned to European Union membership, to the privatisations, the interests of the secularist bourgeoisie (mostly monopoly capital) and the AKP seemed to converge for a while. The adaptation was not so smooth for the state apparatuses, staffed mostly by the secularist cadres. An Islamic government, which moreover sounded willing to improve the status of the Kurds at least to meet certain human rights standards for Turkey’s EU membership bid, was an anathema to these authoritarian cadres who were used to reproducing capitalist relations in the Kemalist way – by suppressing Kurdish and Muslim identities. As the 2007 national elections were approaching, the secularist bureaucracy looked determined to strike back. On 27 April 2007, a threat of a coup d’état was posted on the website of the General Staff.  The Turkish military made clear that it did not wish to see Abdullah Gül of the AKP elected as president. Soon afterwards, in what came to be known as the ‘Ergenekon trials’, hundreds of putschist generals were arrested, prosecuted and ultimately sentenced to long prison terms.

Such contradictions within the state should not be viewed as isolated from popular struggles. For the Kemalist-secular camp, cases like Ergenekon were experienced as a nightmare coming true; the secular republic was coming under threat by an alliance of the ‘Islamist’ AKP and the ‘separatist’ Kurds. For the Islamic camp, whenever they wished to appeal to Kurds, they invoked the previous decades of Kemalist repression. When this attempt failed to garner Kurdish support, they accused the armed wing of the Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK), of collaborating with the putschist generals by legitimising their presence in politics. This intra-state conflict did not benefit the popular classes immediately. Yet it is not insignificant that one camp had to attack the other over what they had done to Kurds, thus revealing things that would never have otherwise appeared in the mainstream media. It was the beginning of an ideological crisis; cracks began to appear on the ideological cement which had kept the Turkish ruling classes and too many Turkish people together for decades.

This process was accompanied by the ceasefires that the PKK declared from 2008 onwards, themselves the fruits of talks that Turkish state officials and the PKK officials held in Oslo. The existence of these talks came to light only after 2011 when a voice recording of one of the talks was leaked. Hakan Fidan, who was appointed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to lead the Turkish side in that round of talks, went on to become the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT). Most likely the leak was committed by one or more individuals within the Turkish state who were unhappy about the initiative and wished to see it sabotaged.

In the 2009 local elections, the then most eminent Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, DTP), claimed significant victories in the Kurdish provinces and the PKK declared another ceasefire. Yet the Turkish state responded by initiating the infamous ‘KCK trials’, which within a few years had incarcerated more than ten thousand Kurdish activists, lawyers and journalists. On 19 October 2009, a ‘peace group’ of 34 Kurds, among them some PKK members, entered Turkey from Iraq via the Habur border crossing as sign of goodwill following a call by the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Prime Minister Erdoğan initially viewed the pictures from Habur, as the group was being greeted by the Kurds living in Turkey, quite hopefully. However, many of these people were later prosecuted because the words they uttered when entering Turkey were later criminalized.

On 7 February 2012, Turkish politics was shaken once again when Hakan Fidan, still head of the country’s intelligence service, was called to court to testify in a PKK-related investigation. The fact that the judiciary suspected the head of the country’s intelligence service of collaborating with what the state views as its biggest security threat, highlighted the paradoxes of the Turkish state. Disagreements over what to do in the face of the Kurdish struggle that have forced the Turkish state to take contradictory decisions or pitted one branch of the state against another, despite both being currently dominated by the Islamic camp of the power bloc, confirming Nicos Poulantzas’s view that intra-state contradictions are ultimately the expression of the struggle of the popular classes.

The Islamic power bloc

If one component of the Islamic power bloc is the AKP, the other is the Gülen movement; the followers of the now Pennsylvania-based imam Fethullah Gülen, who are said to operate schools in around 140 countries and wield considerable media power. What brought the components of this camp together was the fight against military tutelage over Turkish politics. The AKP had relied upon, and in fact strengthened, the Gülen movement’s grip over the police and judiciary in order to counteract the threats from the military. Once they succeeded in jailing the putschist generals, however, the differences between these two components began to surface.

The Kurdish issue is certainly not the only one over which the Islamic camp is divided. In 2010, the Gülen movement displayed a completely different attitude when AKP circles raged against Israel following the killing of nine Turks on the Mavi Marmara. Iran is another. In the Gülen movement’s daily, the Today’s Zaman, one quite often comes across articles, which – while not asking for a Western intervention against it – view Iran and its regional allies as a threat to Turkey’s security. The AKP’s relation to Iran, meanwhile, has been rather ambivalent. While it has not been pro-Iran per se, it, for example, rejected a UN Security Council draft resolution to impose further sanctions in 2010. Similarly, while not being anti-imperialist by any means; the AKP has displayed more contradictions with Western powers than the Gülen movement. If this difference was papered over for a while, it is because the AKP also found itself having problems with Iran after clearly taking the side of the opposition in the Syrian conflict.

The Arab Revolutions meanwhile came with their own set of contradictions.  By initially bringing to power the Muslim Brotherhood parties with which the AKP has a close affinity, they added considerably to the AKP’s regional popularity, which it had been enjoying for a while for its championing of the Palestinian cause. However, the party’s affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood soon put Turkey into trouble. The possibility of seeing a series of Muslim Brotherhood-ruled countries, stretching from Tunisia to Syria, was too attractive for the AKP to resist and Turkey soon found itself in an undeclared war against Syria and attempted repeatedly to provoke a Western intervention. Already suffering from the intensification of the intra-class struggle and the war on Kurds, civil liberties were further curtailed in preparation for war. Meanwhile, there were attempts to solidify domestic support for the planned war along sectarian (in this case, Sunni) lines and Turkey’s own Alevi population were demonised as a fifth column for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On May Day 2013, Turkey’s citizens succumbed to police brutality for the last time. At the end of May they rose in revolt in what came to be known as the ‘Gezi Protests’.

The massive action by the Turkish popular classes during the June Uprising sharpened the contradictions within the power bloc even further. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s otherwise ridiculous claim that an ‘interest-rate lobby’ was behind the Uprising, only makes sense as an effort by the AKP to blame future economic fluctuations on the other components of the power bloc. The use by the protestors of the lobby of the Divan Hotel, owned by Turkey’s largest conglomerate Koç Holding, as a first aid station was enough for the AKP circles to suspect the secularist bourgeoisie of conspiring against them. Afterwards, some companies belonging to Koç were raided in probes for tax evasion.

When criticising the AKP over its handling of this political crisis, the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel were apparently motivated less by their concern for civil liberties than by concern over the stability of capitalism in Turkey. However, with its paranoid mindset the AKP interpreted these criticisms as further evidence of a conspiracy against it. The media outlets of the Gülen movement did not take the side of the protestors, but to the extent that they questioned the police brutality, the overall authoritarian practices, and the damage these were doing to Turkey’s image abroad, they too became targets of the demonisation now commonplace in the media outlets loyal to the AKP.

As if the AKP was not feeling cornered enough, the military coup in Egypt on 3 July 2013 toppled the AKP’s ‘Muslim Brothers’ and brought back a form of ‘militant secularism’, from which the AKP cadres had themselves long suffered. As one would expect, the AKP strongly condemned the coup. If one defines the ‘Arab Spring’ very narrowly as the eventual replacement of secularist dictators/militaries – most supported by the West with Cold War balances in the mind – with political Islam, then Prime Minister Erdoğan is totally justified in noting that ‘the Turkish Spring occurred on 3 November 2002’ (referring to AKP’s first election victory). In this sense, the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood parties are truly brothers. However, when reacting to the Egyptian coup with such force, the AKP also sought to delegitimise Turkey’s June Uprising by implying that the same conspirators were behind both. Moreover, Turkey soon found itself at odds with other countries in the region that hailed the coup. It even failed to have the Turkish head of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, which is ultimately dominated by Saudi Arabia, condemn the coup.

A Staggering Class Hegemony

The Gülen movement is far more reputable than the AKP globally and precisely because it does not bear any political responsibility it is also better placed to devise yet another bourgeois hegemonic project if any government it supports becomes too risky for the bourgeoisie as a whole. The AKP, precisely because it is bogged down with the intensification of intra- and inter-class contradictions to a level of political crisis, looks as if it has lost the degree of relative autonomy demanded of a capitalist government and fallen back into what Antonio Gramsci would call an ‘economic corporate’ level – alienating every bourgeois grouping except the ones that blindly support it. It is quite telling in this regard that after the vice chairman of Boydak Holding, Mustafa Boydak, who belongs to the Islamic fraction, warned against the dangers of targeting business groups following the Gezi Protests, the company was probed by tax inspectors, just as occurred with Koç Holding. Boydak Holding’s other vice chairman, Şükrü Boydak, is a member of the executive board of Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists of Turkiye (Türkiye İşadamları ve Sanayiciler Konfederasyonu, TUSKON), the umbrella organisation of the Gülen-affiliated component of the Islamic bourgeoisie.

It is irrelevant here whether these warnings by the Gülen movement were threats or friendly advice. The AKP perceived them as threats and struck back by revealing its plans to close the pre-university crammers at the beginning of November, which are a huge source of funding and membership recruitment for the Gülen movement. Quite likely because it saw what was coming, the AKP also sought to enhance its relative autonomy internationally. At the end of September 2013, Turkey revealed it is preference for buying a missile defence system from a Chinese company which is under US sanctions for violating embargoes against Iran, North Korea and Syria, even though the tender has not so far been concluded. On 22 November, in a press conference with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Erdoğan also renewed his wish to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. As for the recent crackdown that shook Turkey on the morning of 17 December, the allegations revolved around an Iranian-Azeri businessman, who allegedly used his political connections and a state-owned bank for money-laundering, which also involved getting around the US-led sanctions on Iran. These events, however, should not lead anyone to assume that the AKP is a champion of anti-imperialism. After all, until the Turkish people intervened via the June Uprising, the top priority of the AKP had been to provoke an imperialist intervention in Syria.

Against Reductionism

There is a tendency within Marxism to view the rise and fall of every government in the Middle East as necessarily happening in the imperialist powers’ best interests, and this must be resisted. If we are to explain the rise of the AKP as something supported by the US, how are we to explain its overall good relations with Iran and its troubled relations with Israel? If one takes the hard line that even these were all at the behest of the US, then why are Saudi Arabia and Turkey at opposite ends over the coup d’état in Egypt? A relative decline in US hegemony in terms of keeping its Middle Eastern allies together has to be accepted and this makes US interests less relevant to understanding Turkey’s crisis.

Similarly, while the economic crisis which began in 2007 is certainly a factor in destabilising the Turkish power bloc; the relation between this economic crisis and Turkey’s political crisis cannot be treated as automatic. The global economic crisis would have had a different impact on the Turkish social formation if the secularist CHP rather than the AKP had been in power. The fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, would not have affected the fortunes of the CHP in any way near the same way they have affected the fortunes of the AKP.

As noted above, the bourgeois rule in Turkey was already suffering from a cold civil war between the secularist bureaucracy and the AKP, which while it concluded with the latter’s victory, neither ended the secularists’ resentments, nor gave the AKP cadres as spoils a state free from internal tensions and contradictions. If even the cadres one would otherwise lump together as ‘Islamic’ were divided among themselves, it is because the Kurdish struggle succeeded in traversing even the highest echelons of the Turkish state. What made these contradictions amount to a political crisis, of which the June Uprising was a symptom, was Turkey’s arrogant involvement in Syrian affairs.

That said, we are not talking about so much a subjective error. The rise of the AKP, owes much to the strengthening of economic ties between Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, ties which it has strengthened even further. In this sense, it displays more relative autonomy vis-à-vis the West than Turkey’s secularist bourgeois fraction. It would be naive however to consider this, as the mainstream media in both Turkey and the West did, as a one-way relation; namely Turkey having more say in the Middle Eastern affairs. Rather it is a two way process which has important influences on the politics of the Turkish state.  Poulantzas argued that what he called the ‘internationalization of the capital’ – foreign capitals becoming part of the host country’s power bloc as foreign direct investment – leads to the ‘induced reproduction’ of the contradictions of these foreign capitals in the hosting social formation.  The interests of foreign capital become part of host country’s power bloc and need to be taken into consideration when adopting any policy. If Turkey is finding itself overwhelmed with Middle Eastern contradictions apparently beyond its power to solve, this is because the regional integration Turkey sought not only gave it a more say in the regional affairs, but also led to the ‘induced reproduction’ of regional contradictions within the Turkish state.

Resisting a new bourgeois hegemony

Focusing on US imperial interests or narrow economic questions to the exclusion of everything else obscures more than it explains and has serious consequences for political analysis and the question of hegemony. This is all the more important now, since the CHP as the ‘centre-left’ party, whose voter base was in fact quite radical during the June Uprising, is courting the Gülen movement and pushing itself as the ‘reasonable’ centre-right party to replace the now-gone-mad AKP, precisely with the aim of co-opting the uprising masses back to a different – yet still bourgeois – hegemony. In order to challenge these attempts, the question of hegemony needs to be taken seriously and this requires abandoning the habit of reducing to economic the political and ideological class relations and crises in the name of Marxism.

There was an opportunity before the June Uprising to strike up a leftist alliance between the Kurds and the Turks, which was lost and may not come back for years, particularly if the CHP takes the above-mentioned path. The Kurdish provinces – otherwise in revolt for decades – were largely calm during the June Uprising because a peace process has been underway between the Turkish state and the PKK since early 2013. The AKP had to initiate this peace process, because it knew how dangerous an escalation in the Kurdish struggle would be on top of all the contradictions Turkey had accumulated in its undeclared war against Syria. If this peace process had any credibility in the eyes of the Kurds, it is because the Turkish centre-left has even less to offer thanks to the nationalists within its ranks. In this sense, the AKP survived the June Uprising because it was aware of the level the political crisis reached and did something to alleviate it before the June Uprising.

Apparently the AKP had grasped some basics of Marxist state theory better than some Marxists; namely that the capitalist mode of production includes a relatively autonomous superstructure in which the political and ideological class relations might intensify up to the level of a political crisis without waiting for permission from the economic region first. For any leftist project to seriously challenge the hegemony of the AKP, or any other bourgeois hegemony which might succeed it, it is an indispensable task to outdo the AKP in terms of the keen attention it has paid to superstructural phenomena.  In other words, following Poulantzas, we must take the political region of the capitalist mode of production seriously, rather than reducing it to the mere reflection of the economic region, as what is commonly referred to as ‘orthodox Marxism’ did and often still does. The various accounts of Turkey’s June Uprising coming from supposedly quite ‘unorthodox’ leftist circles which either delve into statistics to prove which section among the protestors saw a relative decline in their real wages so that they revolted, or claim that resistance to the uprooting of the few trees in Gezi Park directly reflected people’s reaction to the economic hardships they have been suffering, only testify to the need for leftists to take the political region seriously.

This article is dedicated to the memories of Berkin Elvan and Alexandros Grigoropoulos.  As the great Greek communist poet Yannis Ritsos heralded in his ever-powerful Romiosinimay the bells of the resurrection soon ring.

Ali Behran Ozcelik is a PhD candidate in Graduate Program for Social and Political Thought at York University. He can be reached at behran@yorku.ca. 

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