Erdoğan Can Be Beaten

Erdoğan is not unstoppable. The Turkish left must fight to annul the fraudulent referendum and mobilize against dictatorship.

A billboard depicting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Groundhopping Merseburg / Flickr

Turkey finds itself in a decisive moment. The current struggles and debates — carried out in the wake of last Sunday’s referendum, which handed dictatorial powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the Justice Development Party (AKP) — will fundamentally shape the country’s balance of power, both in the immediate and long term. Now is the time for the Turkish left to turn the tide and regain the initiative.

Yet despite the inescapable urgency of the situation, confusion abounds on the Left, inside and outside of Turkey. A dominant strand of thinking offers handwringing and a parade of doubts: “you cannot vote down fascism”; “the AKP was expecting the resistance, and is sufficiently strong to ignore it”; “the post-referendum protests are not powerful, but rather limited to a small minority in leftist strongholds.” This line of reasoning leads inexorably to the conclusion that contesting the results is pointless, since all legal avenues are closed and the state apparatuses are controlled by the AKP.

At times, this passive stance is combined with ostensibly radical phrase-mongering: everyone should take up arms, it is insisted, or fight for “the socialist revolution.” Needless to say, there are no concrete proposals about how exactly this armed struggle should be waged or how “the socialist revolution” would be won under the current circumstances.

It utterly fails to comprehend and analyze the current situation. Consequently, it fails to identify the crucial tasks currently facing the Turkish left.

Weak Fascism

It is wrong to assume that the AKP is at its strongest and that it controls the entire state apparatus. On the contrary: the AKP is weaker than it’s been in a long time. The hegemonic crisis has bubbled up, and the AKP cannot control it any longer.

How, for instance, is the AKP supposed to be mightier than ever when half the populace openly opposed it in the referendum, despite repressive, dictatorial methods and widespread fraud? When half of the populace not only clearly said “no” to creeping fascization but is also protesting the apparent fraud in the streets?

Sunday’s referendum was not a regular election or even a regular referendum. It was the polarized pinnacle of a struggle to determine the country’s future. That 49 percent opposed Erdoğan in such a critical poll — and this according to the fraudulent tally — means that the country literally is split in two; those who said “no” are in absolute, determined opposition to the government.

To put it bluntly, those who believe this is strong fascism have no clue what strong fascism actually looks like.

In addition to the hit it took in the referendum, the AKP is hampered by its dependence on other political forces to achieve its aims. It needs the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in order to win over the nationalist vote (and also because of the paramilitary-like gangs associated with the party). It needs the Maoist-turned-ultra-nationalist Doğu Perinçek and his Patriotic Party (VP), because of their cachet in military circles and relations with countries like Russia and Syria. And it needs the pro-NATO army general staff to prevent another coup attempt (like the one last summer) and to enable further military incursions into Iraq and Syria.

Every one of these political actors has their own agenda, their own power bases, and their own visions of a stable, strong Turkey. Erdoğan and his circle want to lead all these forces through pure power plays.

But their power is showing its limits.

Unleashing unbridled brutality didn’t finish off the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, the militant Kurdish independence group the government has waged war on for years). Erdoğan’s military adventures in Syria and Iraq turned out to be a disaster. His government’s anti–European Union rhetoric is getting more aggressive by the day, with little chance of things turning in his favor. And all segments of Turkish big capital (including the more conservative-Islamic business association) are worried about the prospect of further instability and severed relations with Europe.

The AKP was unable to demonstrate absolute power when it appeared at its strongest: that is, by mobilizing people to vote for Erdoğan’s referendum. This has provoked confusion and discord within the bourgeoisie, not to mention the AKP. Internally, the party is outright panicking over its weak performance, and voices are rising demanding an end to the discourse of polarization in favor of a more inclusive rhetoric, stability, pro-business reforms, and so on.

Erdoğan recognizes that the AKP is in a dire state, and has adopted his go-to solution: act like a strongman.Yet even now, the AKP’s voters haven’t mobilized en masse to celebrate the referendum victory, or proclaim their support for Erdoğan.

This is not the picture of an all-powerful party.

VP chief Perinçek has declared that “the AKP is falling,” and a split within the MHP seems imminent. While the MHP and VP will try to position themselves to take over if the AKP fails, the big bourgeoisie and its historic political allies, the centrist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the army general staff, disapprove of further instability and distancing Turkey from the advanced capitalist world.

Tens of thousands of people have flocked to the streets in continuous protests against election fraud, a legal fight is being waged to invalidate the referendum, and the ruling classes are grappling with how to deal with the fallout.

The burning question, then, given this balance of power, is what the concrete tasks are for revolutionaries today.

Legality and Voting Procedures

Legality and voting procedures work to conceal the class character of the state, and can subdue potential anti-systemic resistance. But they are also sites where conflicts are carried out — conflicts between the bourgeoisie and the popular classes within capitalism, but also conflicts within the bourgeoisie in general, and within the internal and external bourgeoisie in particular. These conflicts can change the balance of forces within capitalism.

If revolution is not on the agenda — or if a situation of dual power doesn’t exist — the popular classes will always consider parliamentary and (bourgeois) legal procedures as legitimate. As long as we have not built alternative, revolutionary forms of politics, the bourgeois means of politics cannot be ceded to the popular classes’ opponents.

If we truly aim to change society, and not simply fall into the trap of issuing “more revolutionary than thou” pronouncements, we have to apply our strategic perspective (popular democratic revolution developing into socialist revolution) to these specific tactical circumstances (no popular power, no dual power).

Lenin made this point well nearly a hundred years ago. Parliamentarism, he wrote, was of course “historically obsolete from the standpoint of world history . . . [But] is parliamentarism ‘politically obsolete’? That is quite a different matter.” Because the popular classes still viewed these forms of politics as legitimate, revolutionaries had to work with them for the time being (even as they sought to disabuse people of their attachments).

The broader point applies to Turkey: it’s strategically obtuse to wish away the facts on the ground and conjure up a revolutionary situation.

Their Discord and Our Weaknesses

Imagine the following scenario: the AKP has sustained a serious blow because it only managed to secure 51 percent of the vote, despite engaging in massive fraud; yet nobody opposes it in any way, and nobody takes to the streets — not even in left strongholds. Nobody even contests the election results.

The AKP swiftly regains the momentum and re-emerges even stronger. Its more stridently fascistic supporters realize that the opposition has disappeared, and that they can do anything they wish: legality and constitutionalism be damned, let decisionism reign! The AKP comes out stronger in relation to the rest of the bourgeoisie, but also in relation to the popular classes. The popular classes, on the other hand, and the organized democratic and socialist opposition, are demoralized and disorganized.

This, of course, is not what is happening right now. And the very fact that it is not happening — the very fact that there are massive protests and that people are taking to the streets — changes power relations and the outlook for the country.

For the AKP, this popular unrest, as well as the fraying support from leading powers of the advanced capitalist world, entails an increase in internal discord. In the medium term, if another crisis comes, the AKP will be weaker and in a more defensive place with less room for maneuver. And the stronger the fight we put up now, the deeper its crisis and the better our position will be in the future.

As for the CHP, its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, tries to style himself as the head of the entire democratic opposition. The AKP happily played along with this charade in the run-up to the referendum. It was supposed to be the old game again: political conflict confined to the two major parties, the boundaries of the established order firmly delineated.

But the CHP has been eclipsed as the main pole of the democratic forces since the HDP’s rise. As an alliance uniting feminists, LGBTQ organizations, various radical left factions, the Kurdish movement, and oppressed identities, the HDP managed to mobilize people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and substantially shake the existing lines of political demarcation in the June 2015 election. It proved itself a more effective, more visible advocate for popular rule than the etatist CHP.

In the wake of the referendum, as the state attempts to smash the HDP, the CHP has been trying to regain its lost influence, especially by leading the legal struggle to invalidate the results. (This despite the fact that the party lent its support at every critical juncture to the AKP and MHP’s drive to isolate the HDP.)

In doing so, the CHP aims to win over wavering rank-and-filers in the state bureaucracy. In general, its goal is to reassert itself as the representative of various factions of the big bourgeoisie and the state bureaucracy. However, it also endeavors to regain lost ground among the popular classes.

Contrary to some left radicals’ arguments and proposals for action, many ordinary people in Turkey (whether pro-AKP or anti-AKP) still believe in elections and legality. Many still believe that elections matter and that everybody has to accept election results. But many also believe that fraud is unacceptable.

Under these circumstances, uncovering fraud and fighting an obvious breach of law takes on special significance: it is a fight for the hearts and minds of the people. And even more than this.

Legality and constitutionalism are an order imposed by the bourgeoisie (sometimes in reaction to the struggles of the popular classes) that is also intended to regulate its own internal problems and conflicts with the popular classes. The bourgeoisie may, under certain conditions, opt for decisionism (i.e. fascistic methods of politics) instead of legality and constitutionalism. But not if it means permanent crises and arbitrary rule for the big bourgeoisie’s interests. Left radicals who assert that all state apparatuses are under the AKP’s thumb, and that it does not make sense to fight the “legal struggle,” completely miss all of this.

On some level, the CHP is more cognizant of the situation. The party has quickly moved to capture the moment of post-referendum instability, seeing both that the fraud could not be concealed and that people were taking to the streets. However, Kılıçdaroğlu is and always was the Hero of the Center, the King of Mediocrity, the Champion of Passivity.

The CHP would only put up a serious fight against election rigging if important parts of the state and the big bourgeoisie had told it do so. As of now, the CHP is, as usual, trying to co-opt and defuse popular potential.

One former CHP leader, Deniz Baykal, has said that “the match is not over, we’ll see you in 2019,” and the acting leader, Kılıçdaroğlu, has noted that they are “not joining the street protests as a party.” In other words, the CHP is trying to gain control of the dissenting forces in order to buoy its presidential bid in 2019 — but nothing more.

Given this state of affairs, what should be the outlook of revolutionary democrats and/or socialists, and the popular classes?

Popular mobilization is once again on the agenda. The police — hoping that the post-referendum demonstrations will wither away on their own — have avoided intervening thus far (other than imprisoning supposed leaders of the mobilizations). One year ago, they would have smashed the demonstrations immediately. This is a clear victory and a sign of the government’s confusion.

And it’s a clear opening for the Left. We must seize the moment and inject a new sense of motivation into the populace.

The longer the demonstrations and contestation of the election results continue, the greater the chance they will become a storm, swirling toward the AKP. The longer we put up the fight, the more morale and fighting power we will win for the struggles to come, and the wider the space for future mobilizations will be.

We should never forget that there were a range of demonstrations and uprisings before the Gezi Uprising in 2013. We should also not forget that Taksim Square is a stronghold of the Left. If enough dissent accumulates, a spark from a central leftist district in Istanbul could ignite other pockets of resistance across Turkey.

The Immediate Tasks

In short, we should not underestimate the importance of the current struggles, however minimal or hopeless some might conceive them to be. Fascism in Turkey is not as strong as it would like. And the interaction of different political actors’ moves under today’s critical conditions will determine the political terrain tomorrow. Any revolutionary (organization) that is unable to grasp the importance of the current situation and the immediate tasks that lie ahead is running away from their duties. No amount of phrase-mongering or grand visions will change that.

Our task now is to regain and rebuild our initiative and morale. That implies full participation in the demonstrations and the contestation of election results by means of mass demonstrations. Our participation, again, should be informed by the current situation.

When joining the demonstrations, we should be aware of our relative weakness on the streets at present. There is nothing like the mass militancy of the Gezi Uprising, at least not yet. We should avoid any tactics that outpace, or are at variance with, the state of popular struggle. The objective should be to build pressure and regain self-empowerment. If we succeed in this, and in our organizational activities, we can be sure that mass militancy on the streets will return again.

In terms of the election results, we should fight to expose the details of the voting procedure in order to uncover fraud, and demand the results’ annulment. The more successful we are in deepening the divisions within the (internal and external) bourgeoisie, and regaining the streets, the better positioned we’ll be to thwart the installation of the dictatorial presidential system. This is not just a question of Erdoğan’s noxiousness. The dictatorial order will persist even after his departure if we do not stamp it out now, while it is still germinating.

Our struggle should be independent and self-organized, allowing the CHP no opportunity to co-opt the democratic movement and push it in the opposite direction of left radicalism, i.e. pure legalism. If we succeed, the CHP will quickly lose relevance (just like it did in 2015).

As the state party par excellence, the CHP is doing its job. It is we — the revolutionary left — who are not able or strong enough at the moment to do our job, i.e. lead the popular classes in a revolutionary, militant, and self-empowering direction. Fevered dreams of impending revolution will not change this, but only weaken us, and skirt the immediate tasks at hand.

There is a very small window in which all possible actions can be taken to reveal the massive fraud that took place and to fight for the election results’ nullification. We cannot stress enough the urgency of this immediate task. Even if the result was officially recognized, and its constitutional measures took effect, contesting its legitimacy is paramount to all further democratic struggles. Any mass uprising, any socialist revolution, any prediction of a crisis in the medium term or long term — all those things will be null and void, a chain of empty phrases, if the very concrete struggles that can critically alter the balance of forces now are not fought for with all of our might.

Unfortunately, the utter confusion about tactics and strategy bespeaks a severe absence of what was once Marxism 101: revolutionary in strategic outlook, flexibility in tactics according to the concrete conditions of mass struggles, always trying to push one step further toward strategic goals. There is also a severe lack of awareness that it is organization — in collective bodies that can fight (e.g., parties or similar vehicles) as well as alternative, people-empowering structures — that determines our ability to wage class struggle. Whatever methods we wish to use, we must remember that they depend on the balance of power, the contingencies of moment, the ability to react — and the realities of organization.

Difficult times lie ahead if the Left — Turkish and otherwise — forgets these basic axioms.