The Future of the Revolt and the Fate of Turkey’s Strong Man

by Sungur Savran

The evacuation of Gezi Park by the police on the night of 15 June through the ample use of tear gas, and for the first time chemically enhanced water cannon, has not extinguished the fire of rebellion in Turkey.

True, the insurgency that followed the evacuation, which involved night-long marches and the occupation of squares in the different neighbourhoods of Istanbul and cities all around the country, was short-lived.  But from the continuing energy of the masses burst forth new forms of action such as the ‘standing man’ and ‘standing woman’, in which individuals stand silently for hours at a venue where they are not otherwise permitted to demonstrate.  This form of action certainly isolates individuals from each other, is not amenable to voicing grievances explicitly, and hence is an inferior modality of protest.  But in this specific context, where it was almost impossible to stage actions on Taksim Square it heralded the return of the masses to the hotly contested space and raised the morale of the movement after the setback caused by the evacuation (followed, incidentally, by the evacuation of occupied squares in other cities).

Much more significant though has been the convening of what has been variously called ‘forums’ or ‘popular assemblies’ every night in parks all around Istanbul.  This is a direct application of the slogan, ‘Everywhere’s Taksim, everywhere resistance!’ – a central battle-cry of the rebellion from its inception now put into practice!  These forums serve for thoroughly democratic debates lasting into the small hours of the morning, debates through which the mass movement is trying to reorient itself and set a course of action for the future. 

That these nocturnal assemblies have given the rebellion a new lease of life was confirmed on the night of Monday 24 June, when tens of thousands of people spilled outside one park in a central district of Istanbul in protest against the release of a police officer identified in a widely circulated video as having been responsible for the cold blooded killing of a demonstrator in Ankara.   And the assemblies or forums are now spreading to other cities, including Ankara, the capital city, and Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city which faces Greece over the Aegean Sea.

So the rebellion may have suffered a setback, but is still alive and kicking.  How it can move forward and what its final destination will be are questions that are totally open-ended and subject to the moves of the different forces within the movement.  But one thing is certain: the longer this movement lasts, the more the AKP government of Tayyip Erdogan is threatened; a government which seemed unshakeable only a month ago, even to many people on the left.

The basis of the AKP’s power

That assessment was, of course, erroneous.  It is true that from a narrowly electoralist viewpoint, the AKP was until recently still overwhelmingly stronger than any other contending force.  But the accumulation of setbacks on several fronts had already started to sap the government’s power base.  In order to understand what was happening to the AKP even before the outbreak of the revolt on 31 May, it is useful first to look closer at the factors which lent strength to the AKP during the previous decade it was in power.

Without trying to be exhaustive one can try to identify several significant factors.  Before that, though, one should mention another factor, more structural in nature and less likely to change in the short run.  This relates to the Turkish exceptionalism in the Islamic world.  Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic, Turkey adopted wholesale the legal, educational and cultural norms and forms of the West.  No other country in the Islamic world has gone so far in embracing the Western world.  This led to a regime where Islam was kept under the tight control of the state and the ruling classes of the country, towing the urban petty bourgeoisie in their wake, became uncompromisingly Westernised.  The result was that a system of class oppression and exploitation also appeared to the labouring masses as a system of cultural divorce between the haves and have-nots.  It is against this background that a new Islamist fraction of the bourgeoisie emerged.  First meekly, in the form of a subaltern set of medium-sized capitalists mainly outside the major economic centres of the country.  But from the 1980s onwards they became themselves a component of the finance capital, or in other words the monopoly capital, of Turkey.

The AKP is the latest political expression of this wing of the bourgeoisie.  Abusing the deceptive identification of class oppression with the cultural divide between the ruling classes and the masses, the political leadership of the Islamist bourgeoisie, with its oriental culture and conservative ways, has a head start against the representatives of the Western-secular wing.  Erdogan, himself a self-made capitalist with plebeian roots, seems to the multitude of the urban and rural poor ‘one of them’.  This structural divide in Turkish society has been thoroughly used and abused by Erdogan throughout his decade in power.  He has kept alive a policy of social polarisation between what he calls the ‘oligarchy’ (together with the so-called ‘interest rate lobby’) on the one hand, and the authentically Turkish and Muslim people of the country, on the other.  This is a problem that is difficult to cope with in the short run and can only be overcome if the left – to a great extent an offshoot of the secular, Kemalist tradition of bourgeois progressive movements – can heal the cultural divide with the labouring classes.

There are, however, other explanations of why the AKP has ridden high for so long compared with the fragile coalition governments of the 1990s.  One is purely technical in nature.  The 10% electoral threshold, whereby no party that receives less than that can gain a single seat in parliament, has played into the hands of the AKP.  The electorate of the smaller right-wing parties have over the years opted one by one to vote for the AKP, bringing its vote tally all the way up to 50% in the last elections in 2011.

Another reason is economic.  Turkey has achieved remarkable economic growth under the AKP.  With the exception of a short period in the aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse when Turkey suffered a contraction of GDP to the order of around 5%, the economy has grown rapidly over the last decade, reaching close to a 10% growth in 2010 and 2011.  In one sense this rapid recovery was sheer luck.  Turkey had previously suffered an immense financial and economic crisis in 2001 and 2002, right before the AKP came to power.  The Turkish economy, and in particular the banking system, were streamlined and disciplined in response to that crisis and so the AKP took over an economy that had already been modernised to fit the requirements of so-called globalisation.  It then rode high on the crest of the impressive expansion of the world economy up to 2007.  And because in a certain sense Turkey had already gone through its own banking crisis in 2001, the financial system proved to be extremely resilient in 2008-2009 and the Turkish recession was very short-lived. 

Though the economic success was largely the legacy of an earlier period, it should still be recognised that as a party of the capitalists the AKP has accomplished what the previous coalition governments had not been able to before it.  For the high growth rate was also predicated on the super-exploitation of the working class and the peasantry.  On the basis of its strong backing, the AKP attacked the established gains of the working class in all areas and pursued a policy of impoverishing the small peasantry.  It was able to achieve this through a combination of divide and rule tactics, actively gaining control over a section of the trade union movement, attacking other unions ferociously.

A third factor in Erdogan’s success has been his foreign policy.  He has walked a fine line between loyalty to the Turkish ruling classes’ traditional commitments to the Western alliance (in particular to NATO and the EU), whilst challenging Israel and developing closer links to the Islamic world and Islamist regimes and movements.  The latter policy has gained him significant prestige with what Western commentators call ‘the Arab street’.

Another significant factor has been the alliance he has forged with the confrerie of the ambitious Imam Fethullah Gulen, who presides over a powerful empire of missionary schools all around the globe and a powerful social, economic and cultural network within Turkey itself.

One final factor is the relative calm Erdogan has enjoyed on the Kurdish front.  This was mainly because Öcalan, the Kurdish guerrilla leader, was captured by the CIA and turned over to the Turkish state in 1999.  So Erdogan was plain lucky in that area too.

The turning of the tide

All these factors of strength had already begun to turn sour before the eruption of the rebellion at the end of May.  For one thing economic growth was already down to around 2% last year.  The vulnerabilities of the Turkish economy are now making themselves felt, especially the structural problem of the current account deficit and the very high and still rising indebtedness of the private sector in foreign currency.  The recent statement by Fed Chairman Bernanke regarding the timing of a phasing-out of Quantitative Easing has, along with the loss of confidence in capitalist circles caused by the revolt, led to serious volatility in Turkish financial markets.  Turkey is now once again becoming a weak link in the world economy.

The foreign policy of the government has received successive blows.  The ‘zero problem with neighbours’ policy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is in shambles.  Turkey is pursuing a policy of hostility with at least three of its eastern and southern neighbours; Syria to start with, but Iran and Iraq as well.  In the case of Syria, the facile expectation of the Erdogan government of a quick downfall of the Assad regime in Syria has been proved wrong, with serious consequences for Turkey.  The recent killing of at least 52 people in Reyhanli, a small town near the Syrian border, as a result of a pair of bomb explosions and the fact that Erdogan was put down during his visit to Washington in mid-May by Obama over his excessive zeal in dealing militarily with Syria, have caused a significant loss of prestige for the government.

Disputes with Fethullah Gulen have also been on the rise since 2010, when the Imam disowned the flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara, standing with Israel to the shock of many rank and file Islamists.  Other issues have set the two powerful figures on contradictory courses.  Despite his Islamism, Fethullah Gulen is distinguished by an extremely pragmatic and flexible political style and could, during the several electoral occasions of 2014, establish an alliance with more secular political forces.

What remains for Erdogan as sources of strength are his popularity with the more conservative sections of the population – an almost structural advantage – and his Kurdish policy of a peaceful solution.  Though that policy is shrouded in such mystery that one suspects it may collapse any moment, for the moment at least it is this policy that has given him breathing space during the rebellion, as the Kurdish movement has kept to the sidelines for fear of upsetting the fragile ‘peace process’.

Erdogan’s fate at stake

This subterranean shifting of the ground under Erdogan’s feet partly made possible the recent revolt, which has then dealt a serious blow to his power.  He is now at loggerheads with his imperialist patrons; has seen the resurgence of conflict with the Western looking wing of the Turkish bourgeoisie; and has even come up against rifts within his own ruling AKP.  Abdullah Gul, the current president of the republic, is now a serious contender for the next presidential elections, supported visibly by the CHP, the Turkish member of the misnamed Socialist International.  If, as is likely, the Gulen confrerie also turns its favours on Gul, Erdogan will be facing the first serious electoral challenge since his rise to power.

He is not simply facing a loss of electoral strength however.  Should the revolt continue further and perhaps even flare up again, Erdogan will be hard-pressed even to remain in power before the elections.  Behind the façade of the unmovable and unshakeable strong man of Turkey, one senses the erosion of power and prestige as a result of the mighty struggle of the masses.  It is not that the AKP is condemned to fall.  Erdogan’s fate as well as ours depends on the future of the movement and our skill and capacity to push it forward.  There is not room for the slightest despair.

Sungur Savran is based in Istanbul and is one of the editors of the newspaper Gercek (Truth) and the theoretical journal Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism), both published in Turkish, and of the web site RedMed (http://www.redmed.org).

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First published: 27 June, 2013

Category: Activism, Employment & Welfare, Inequality, International, Labour movement, Politics

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