Turkey is heading toward another election. More precisely, it is heading toward its make-or-break vote like a car with no brakes, a faulty steering wheel, and an engine on fire. Discontent at runaway inflation is allied with question marks over a taxpayer-funded construction spree — with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s prestige projects inevitably tendered to “gang of five” firms that keep getting tax breaks and debt write-offs. Yet while economists claim that Turkey is two steps away from crashing and burning, Erdoğan resorts to calling them treacherous accomplices of “foreign powers.”
While elections are due by June 2023, coinciding with the centenary of the republic, constant instability makes it impossible to predict when they will occur (Erdoğan or his coalition partner will get to choose, in their own best interests). The actors in the simultaneous presidential and parliamentary contests are, however, similar to previous elections. Erdoğan is backed by his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), together constituting the right-wing People’s Alliance; they are opposed by the Nation Alliance, consisting of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the center-right, nationalist Good Party (IYIP, itself a split from MHP). Several other minor parties, ranging from center-right to far-right and from liberal to Islamist, seem likely to join or give support to the Nation Alliance.
More hopefully, from the Left’s perspective, there is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Having achieved 11.7 percent in the last elections, this force, led by the Kurdish civil rights movement, has also incorporated several left-wing movements and parties. Its ambitious “Turkeyification” project — which aimed to transform it into “a party of Turkey” rather than of Kurds and their issues alone — came to a halt as AKP resorted to overwhelming political oppression and violence in the Kurdish-majority areas. This growing hostility impeded the HDP’s aim of an all-encompassing vision extending beyond Kurdish politics and forced it to retreat to its initial priorities. The government used this turn to further isolate and criminalize HDP: such measures have included the jailing of its members and leaders, constant defamation, and complete media censorship. This vilification reached new heights when HDP member Deniz Poyraz was murdered in the party headquarters in İzmir by an assailant intent on “mass murder” — as it happened, she was the only person in the building. Meanwhile, a state prosecutor filed a lawsuit for the Constitutional Court to close down the HDP and ban 451 of its politicians. It remains unknown whether HDP will be shut down, but the pressure coming from all sides is at an all-time high.
Despite the varying degrees of oppression, censorship, and suffering brought by Erdoğan’s rule, the opposition seems energized and is calling for early elections. The president’s support is slowly crumbling, alongside the economy and the general welfare of the population. The main opposition bloc is on an upward trend and gaining ground. The HDP is showing great resolve and preserving its political base and influence. But where is the Turkish left in all this?
Workers’ Party of Turkey
With the recent exception of HDP, left-wing politics in Turkey has been sidelined, if not slid into relative obscurity, in electoral politics and popular mobilization in the last forty years. Since Turkey was proclaimed a republic in 1923, the far left has been ostracized, obstructed, and prosecuted at every possible opportunity in the staunchly US-aligned NATO member state.
The Turkish left’s last limited parliamentary breakthrough came in 1965, when the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) gained 3 percent of the vote and fifteen seats in parliament. For a brief period, it successfully attracted young urban voters alongside intellectuals and blue-collar workers. Even this meager score was enough to scare the establishment to change the election system and avoid such radical movements gaining a parliamentary foothold. As the far left was pushed out of parliament and legal politics, several movements and parties took their struggle to the streets, factories, and universities, with some groups even turning to armed struggle. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the country became sharply polarized between right- and left-wing politics, as armed conflict between numerous groups became a part of daily life. Meanwhile, TİP and multiple other left-wing parties were shut down by courts throughout these decades for a myriad of undemocratic reasons.
All this polarization and political struggle came to a screeching halt in September 1980 with a coup d’états. Here we cannot delve into the vast scale of the oppression and the unhumanitarian treatment that the Turkish left faced — but, from bans to persecutions, obstructions to coup d’états, as hundreds were killed or executed while thousands were arrested, jailed, and tortured, the Turkish left was scattered, exiled, or simply languished. The military coup of 1980 traumatized left-wing movements, which again received a significant blow a decade later with the fall of the Soviet Union. These movements retreated, hoping to recover and reassess, as many movements and parties worldwide did during and after the 1990s. Yet the Turkish left became marginalized, both in terms of public resonance and political relevancy; more puritan and theoretical attitudes took over its discussions, separating it from the mass of the population.
Attempts were made to revitalize the Left; several parties merged, only to split again. They also contested elections, only to crumble before the draconian barrier set by the 10 percent election threshold. The United June Movement, which emerged after the Gezi Park protests in 2013, looked like a possible basis to build a meaningful left-wing coalition, only to succumb to infighting, factional differences, and disagreements over strategy.
Among all this tumult, the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) was reborn in 2017 out of a split in the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) dating back three years earlier. Another party splitting in the vast constellation of the Turkish left is not necessarily noteworthy. But TİP has managed to break out of the wilderness, at least to some degree. This also owed to the HDP’s cooperative attitude. As part of its ultimately unfulfilled Turkeyificiation process, HDP opened its lists to other socialist movements and figures, hoping to solidify its support beyond the Kurdish population. TİP was one of the beneficiaries, whereas some left-wing parties refused.
TİP’s strategy henceforth was to act and vote together with the mainly Kurdish-led party but sit under its own name — an approach that the HDP welcomed. In all fairness, the latter also had several socialist and far-left MPs under its umbrella; however, the party was (and still is) a coalition of numerous forces with differing inclinations and ideological stances. In this sense, TİP taking its first steps to stand on its own was a small but considerable initiative. Its leader, Erkan Baş, and actor-turned-politician Barış Atay were elected on HDP lists in 2018, but took their seats as TİP MPs, ending the almost fifty-year lack of a far-left party in Turkey’s National Assembly.
Although these parliamentary activities started only recently, Erkan Baş is a somewhat familiar name, especially in left-wing circles. Part of the socialist movement since his teenage years, he came to prominence as an organizer and provincial and national Communist Party leader; he was expelled from his academic position for organizing striking workers at Istanbul University.
Making their voice heard in parliament provided a launchpad for further progress — the TİP started to gain traction and membership, especially from the younger parts of Turkish society. Two MPs became three as the well-known journalist and author Ahmet Şık joined TİP ranks after amicably leaving the HDP to sit as an independent. The TİP’s parliamentary presence grew further when Sera Kadıgil, an activist and lawyer popular among Turkish youth, defected from the center-left CHP last summer. Although small in number in a parliament of six hundred, these four MPs made a name for themselves for their fierce opposition, which the centrist opposition parties have failed to match.
It would be premature to speak of a revival of the Turkish left. But certain opportunities suggest that the TİP and the Left can make a real comeback in the national political arena.
First, while the electoral system has been developed by the AKP-MHP coalition for these parties’ own benefit, it has backfired massively, for it invalidates the 10 percent threshold that had, since 1980, aimed to keep specific (mostly Kurdish, Islamist, and left-wing) movements out of parliament. The threshold is still there in name, but the possibility of contesting elections in broad alliances makes it much more easily surmounted, ensuring votes are not “wasted” on sub-10-percent parties. This is important given that — with almost all other sites of politics so oppressed and intimidated — making your vote count has long been the primary way to express oneself politically in Turkey.
Currently, HDP, TİP, and several other far-left parties and movements are in discussions to organize an alliance for the next elections and beyond. Amid the widespread vilification and criminalization of HDP, an alliance with this party certainly generates unfavorable responses from certain parts of Turkish society, especially center-left nationalists and conservative circles. The Kurdish question is evidently one of the key divides in Turkish politics. That said, TİP seems to be unfazed by those reactions: its position revolves around a nonviolent peaceful resolution of the conflict and equal citizenship for all groups in the country.
The more mainstream opposition hopefuls, Nation Alliance, come from both center-left and center-right, and seek votes from across all possible sections of society. Still, they seem most intent on winning over conservatives — former AKP voters who are now undecided. The center-left CHP is trying to maximize its votes as a party of the center, and İYİP is set on being the new center-right catchall force in the post-AKP era. Whether CHP will be successful in such outreach remains unknown, and the strategy is itself rather controversial. Indeed, these overtures seem to push CHP toward rather two-faced economic policies, watering down proposals for nationalization and committing to minor tweaks to the economy, thus eroding the party’s social democratic positions. Moreover, an excessive focus on shopkeepers and rural voters — two overwhelmingly pro-government groups — leads them to neglect blue- and white-collar workers, the precariat, and those working in the rising gig economy. Meanwhile, minor right-wing parties around the Nation Alliance are also hoping to cater to core AKP voters with varying degrees of liberalism and conservatism.
Building the Left’s Base
As Turkish politics’ center of gravity shifts to the right, TİP can thus be an alternative for the left-leaning electorate that finds CHP too focused on moderate conservatives and HDP too specifically Kurdish-oriented. The radical left benefitting from such a realignment is hardly exclusive to Turkey: forces abroad like La France Insoumise and Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance have similarly sought to mobilize the former voters of center-left parties that set off on a neoliberal or openly conservative trajectory.
The politics of Turkey somewhat fit into this shift, too: since the country transitioned to multiparty democracy after 1945, the ruling parties have (with brief, exceptional interludes) overwhelmingly been right-wing (with differing inclinations), with an increasingly conservative-leaning population. As the election looms, the center-left CHP and secular center-right IYIP are flirting with the conservative electorate by adapting their rhetoric and assuring these voters that there will be no revanche-minded secular policies such as banning headscarves in education or discriminating against the pious in civil service or employment.
While TİP is not for a secular-revanchist agenda either, it also stands firmly against the shift toward conservative rhetoric and the diluting of the secularist roots of the republic. For example, its reaction to religious sects and their influence over public life came under the spotlight after a student who resided in an apartment funded by one such sect committed suicide. TİP advocated the nationalization of all sect-run dormitories and flats and argued that religious sects must be precluded from providing public services and running private enterprises.
TİP’s left-populist discourse largely reflects its audience: blue- and white-collar workers, the unemployed, students, women and sexual minorities, environmentalists, and so on. Erkan Baş uses left-wing populist rhetoric to unify these groups against the establishment, calling for measures to resolve the division between the 99 percent, naturally including the groups above, and a privileged handful, the 1 percent, referring to the business people, government officials, and, of course, Erdoğan and his AKP. The rest of the TİP MPs share this discourse with different emphases; Ahmet Şık, for example, primarily focuses on government corruption and shady dealings within the state.
TİP thus aims to mobilize these core groups, becoming an influential organizing force as well as an electoral one. Their attraction to TİP, compared to more centrist opposition parties, is also because it is not afraid to scare off different electorates; hence its aggressive opposition comes across as uncompromising yet on point. TİP can build out its base by doing what it has done best in the last three years: mounting a formidable opposition to privatization, inequality, and corruption while developing a coherent party program with sound alternative solutions.
The public’s perception of the Turkish left is essential here. In the decades when the Left lost its place in mainstream politics, it became perceived less as running possible candidates for change than as overtly marginal pressure groups. To resist such an impression, TİP must focus its policymaking on people’s everyday lives, and not get stuck on grandiose claims and aspirations. Its quiet break from the confines of theoretical digressions and political puritanism is a good first step, but not enough by itself. From radical tax reform to solutions to corruption, from access to social services to a nationalization program, there are several areas where TİP can make radical proposals for a future secular, democratic republic. This can allow it to lead public discourse, increase its stature, and develop a plausible vision of an alternative Turkey. It is also helped by a changing context: as social inequality soars and both the pandemic and misguided policies deepen the economic crisis, policies once deemed fanciful can strike a chord.
The future of the Turkish left may not be as rosy as it sounds. Its political reflexes and instincts for policymaking also went missing in the wilderness years, and this poses extra barriers, given its lesser resources under an oppressive regime with a stronghold over the media. It may be an exaggeration to expect any meteoric rise of votes or mobilization like some left-wing parties have seen in Europe. However, considering the historical precedents and troubles of the Turkish left, a new peak and a new start with a vision of what Turkey can be, and a voice that refuses to accept right-wing hegemony, may very well be on its way. TİP, with the cooperation and support of HDP, can be a dark horse in the upcoming elections, a political force in the post-AKP era — and possibly push the political center of gravity to the left.