Last week, Turkey’s far-right regime launched a series of attacks on the opposition’s right to organize. Led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and other ultranationalist and fascistic elements within the state, this all-out war on oppositional forces makes up part of a broader fascization process — one that is increasingly suppressing any democratic space in Turkey.
The crucial attacks started on Wednesday: first Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, an MP for the leftist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), had his parliamentary immunity removed, as he was charged with “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” All he had done was retweet news reports in 2016 that called upon the state and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to reach a peace agreement. A few hours later, it became known that one of the top state attorneys had initiated a Constitutional Court case demanding the dissolution of the HDP and a move to ban 687 of its leading figures from politics. This was again due to its alleged close ties with the PKK and failure to take a clear stance on “national issues.”
But there was more. On Friday, it became known that the area of Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Istanbul — a symbolic site for the Turkish left and the labor movement, famous internationally after 2013’s Gezi Uprising — has been taken from the opposition-controlled Istanbul city hall and set under the jurisdiction of the Directorate General of Foundations, under Erdoğan’s control. Then, in the middle of the night, a presidential decree declared that Turkey would withdraw from the Istanbul Convention — an international agreement on the fight against domestic violence, particularly against women and children.
But why is all this happening now?
The foundation of autonomous Kurdish-dominated administrations in Rojava, the Gezi Uprising, and the subsequent rise of the HDP — with its breakthrough in the 2015 election seeing it take 13 percent support and help end one-party AKP rule — initiated a hegemonic crisis that has only deepened since then. To hold onto power, Erdoğan and his AKP had to significantly undermine the remnants of democracy in Turkey by monopolizing the media, blocking oppositional campaigns, making mass arrests, and even committing blatant fraud, as in the presidential referendum in 2017.
Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the so-called People’s Alliance between the AKP and fascist MHP was formed. It gradually seized control of almost the entire state apparatus, in an attempt at an authoritarian, fascistic consolidation process. However, it has not been easy to generate consent in the context of an ever-deteriorating economy and the presence of various oppositional forces confronting fascization — as setbacks for Erdoğan in the 2019 municipal elections demonstrated.
In recent months alone, the regime received a series of blows from popular forces. Increasing resistance by workers denied even the most basic rights started to gain a more political character. For instance, a union representative raised his voice against military police preventing miners from marching to the capital city in protest. His speech — attacking the state forces’ collaboration with capital — went viral. Workers all over the country have been on strike and protesting for better working and living conditions, often defying the bureaucracy even of supposedly left-wing unions.
Women and LGBT people who were constantly and explicitly criminalized by top government officials continued to take to the streets. Many of them who had been put under house arrest declared that they would not recognize the decision, got rid of the electronic monitoring devices, and joined the marches on International Women’s Day, again showing the strength of the women’s movement.
Boğaziçi University students objecting to the appointment of a new rector by presidential decree instead of democratic elections organized massive protests with the participation of other students and oppositional forces. Student collective Boğaziçi Solidarity highlighted the continuity of a process that began with the replacement of elected Kurdish mayors by presidential appointments. The protests spread to Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, and other cities.
Yet, the regime’s difficulty generating consent is not only expressed by such protests by popular forces. For it is also facing a bourgeois opposition that aims to take Turkish state and society back to the situation that existed before the fascistic slide of recent years. This restorationist bloc mainly centers on oppositional parties like the Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the Good Party (IYI), and some new forces led by former leading AKP officials like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former economics minister Ali Babacan.
While both the popular forces and the restorationist bloc are opposed to the AKP, the restorationist bloc basically wants to restore a stable neoliberal order, and is thus allergic to genuine political action by popular subjects. Faced with protests, they go no further than telling the outraged people that they have been “heard” — but really they’d be better off going home and letting the opposition parties handle things at the next election. On key points such as resurgent Turkish nationalism, aggressive foreign policy stances, and anti-Kurdish repression, the restorationist bloc is often not so different to the regime.
The Tactics of Endless Crisis
The crisis in the regime’s own hegemony has led it to embrace three kinds of tactics toward the opposition. First, an explicit criminalization of literally any oppositional voice, on the grounds of supposed links to terrorism. It is worth emphasizing that this criminalization is not confined to the discursive level. People have been prosecuted and detained even for social-media comments that are barely political.
Second, the manufacturing of a constant state of crisis and turbulence has been the government’s most effective tactic in consolidating its power and convincing disenchanted Turks — both the masses and the elites — of its own indispensability. Hence its full-fledged mobilization of its base against both internal and external enemies, painted as a threat to the existence of the Turkish nation. While Turkey’s strong intervention into the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh was mainly related to its regional-imperialist ambitions, it was also part of these tactics. The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque last year and the constant attacks on LGBT people also conform to this logic. All these actions also helped to bring the nationalist and chauvinist restorationist bloc in line with the regime.
Yet if this is a well-worn tactic, it nonetheless seemed to falter in mid-February. An anti-PKK operation on the Gara Mountain in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq — whose specific aims remain unclear to this day — led to the death of thirteen Turkish hostages. While the regime and its gutter press issued furious demands for national unity against the Kurdish threat, this time around the restorationist opposition wavered, and questioned the details and aims of the operation. One of the aims of the current authoritarian “killing spree” is to do away with the restorationist bloc’s vacillating stance and force it to join the broad party of “national unity” once more.
The regime has at times used a tactics of superficial and partial “liberalization” — especially when it seemed to be facing an upswing of opposition or popular discontent, like after the 2019 local elections. These “liberalization” efforts were launched with great fanfare, but never amounted to more than the proclamation that it would in the future grant basic rights such as the freedom of opinion. The insincerity of these efforts can be grasped by the fact that within two weeks of yet another declaration of an “Action Plan for Human Rights,” the newest fascization push was launched, suppressing these same rights.
Striking Against the Kurds
Attacks on the Kurdish movement — and its current political expression in Turkey, the HDP — can be considered a constant in Turkish politics. But since 2015 this offensive has only intensified. This new attempt to dissolve the HDP follows similar moves to break up parties associated with the Kurdish movement, dating back three decades. Seven such Kurdish-linked parties have been shut down by the state since 1990.
Since 2016 over ten thousand HDP members, including the party’s former cochairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and many MPs, have been imprisoned at some point and some four thousand still are in prison. Almost every week there are detainments and arrests of party members on alleged terror charges. The day after it was revealed that thirteen Turkish citizens had died during the military’s Gara operation, some seven hundred people were detained on the grounds of being members or supporters of the PKK — many of them HDP members.
It was mostly the fascist MHP and interior minister Süleyman Soylu who pushed for the dissolution of the HDP in recent weeks and months. Yet, it would be a mistake to claim that Erdoğan is on principle against this. While some commentators present him as a hostage of more nationalist, anti-Kurdish forces, this is just as mistaken a reading as the view prevalent in the West that Erdoğan is a lone autocrat ruling all by himself. Rather, we are faced with a coalition of state factions who have largely converging interests and by now have no other way to stay in power than to pursue the course of increasing fascization.
Yet the crises the regime faces don’t only concern the “Kurdish issue.” Another presidential decree that was issued in the middle of the night last Friday dismissed Central Bank Governor Naci Ağbal. He was replaced with an MP for Erdoğan’s AKP, who is also a columnist for the vitriolic pro-regime Yeni Şafak newspaper.
When Ağbal was appointed only last November, it was seen as part of a wider economic policy overhaul — prompting Treasury Secretary Berat Albayrak (who is also Erdoğan’s son-in-law) to resign via Instagram. Albayrak had sought to re-politicize monetary policy as part of a general post-neoliberal expansionist economic policy aimed at pushing domestic demand at all costs, and pushing back against the interests of international financial capital. But the result was that after 2018 the Turkish lira suffered a historic fall against the US dollar and the euro, leading to an interlinked chain of currency, inflation, and foreign debt crises.
As this situation became untenable, economic and monetary policy flipped back toward a strictly neoliberal course that reversed the credit bonanza and low interest rates, after Ağbal was appointed and Albayrak replaced. But this change was bound to be only temporary. It appears that the newly appointed central bank governor is close to Albayrak; at least they had the same thesis advisor. It would thus be hardly surprising if he followed a similar approach to Erdoğan’s son-in-law.
This shows how Erdoğan and his regime are trapped in a double bind: adopting a strictly neoliberal economic paradigm in line with the interests of the leading factions of capital risks leading to a massive wave of bankruptcies of small and medium enterprises (SME) — the backbone of the regime’s own base. Yet an expansionist policy in line with the interests of SMEs risks plunging the whole economy into crisis, given that Turkish neoliberalism is firmly integrated within the neoliberal capitalist world order. With SMEs hit hard by the ongoing pandemic, the balance has tilted in this latter direction — with foreseeable dire consequences.
The timing of the current offensive is no coincidence. Literally all polling shows a definite downward trend of the AKP-MHP People’s Alliance, to the point that it would lose its parliamentary majority if fresh elections were held. It is clear that the current regime had to do something in order to change the tide. On the other hand, an exclusive news report by Reuters on March 18 made public that due to pressure applied by US president Joe Biden and German chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU will not declare any further sanctions on Turkey in its upcoming summit on March 25–26, adding that “[a] demand by a Turkish prosecutor to ban the pro-Kurdish HDP party is unlikely to revive any talk of sanctions.” The report further states that Turkey’s recent moves to recalibrate its foreign policy with its Western allies motivated Biden to press Brussels, while Merkel “favored an approach that prioritizes EU investment in Turkey.”
Erdoğan and his allies clearly took this for a green light to press on with their domestic purge, despite the risks that still remain. The EU and United States seem to be willing to come to terms with Turkey’s fascization process as long as it remains a key member of NATO. But replacing the market-friendly and strictly neoliberal Naci Ağbal with a member of the Albayrak faction, standing for a post-neoliberal monetary policy, will surely wreak havoc on Turkey’s currency once financial markets reopen on Monday.
A recent move to abolish the secular-nationalist (and pro-Atatürk) oath in schools and rescind the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence should also be seen as a move by Erdoğan and the AKP to gain more ground within the ruling bloc; the MHP fiercely defends the oath and (though much less strongly) also the Convention. As the contradictions in the ruling coalition and centrifugal social forces intensify, regime actors push for ever riskier moves to retain power.
For this reason, we should not make the mistake of dismissing the recent fascist offensive — and especially the initiative to shut down the HDP — as mere tactical maneuvering. It could well be that the case will be dropped or “only” result in the HDP’s share of financial allowances from the state being capped. It is, however, equally likely that the HDP will indeed be dissolved. This is all the more an attack on democracy in that it entails a mass ban on HDP activists ever being involved in politics again. It is also worth noting that the state apparatuses have always had multiple diverging factions, and that never as now has this competition been “streamlined” into just a few factions that agree on most major issues.
Defending the HDP today means defending the mere possibility of an antifascist front in Turkey. The recent developments — and especially the limp stance taken by the restorationist bloc, the EU, and the Biden administration — again show us how urgent it is to focus on building a genuinely popular-democratic antifascist front, independent of opportunistic and inconsequential bourgeois-democratic forces. Recent years have shown more clearly than ever that we cannot rely either on the restorationist bloc nor the “West” to help save Turkey from fascism and bring popular democracy to the country.
While the “West” is mainly interested in imperialist (“geopolitical”) and economic relations with Turkey, the restorationist bloc is interested in a stable neoliberal order that works without popular mobilization and retains its historical nationalist and authoritarian characteristics. We cannot rely on these half-democrats to resist the regime on our behalf. That is why we have to focus on building a front with those parts of society and the political arena that have a genuine interest in breaking the fascization drive and installing popular democracy.
The further we succeed in building such a bloc, the more we will be able to also force the restorationist bloc and the “West” to tactically change their opportunistic stance and, from their point of view, to try to avoid the situation getting totally out of control. But focusing on our own popular power is our only chance of ultimately halting Erdoğan’s drive — and pushing the potential of popular democracy beyond a capitalist framework.