In Turkey, the Real Opposition Is on the Left

Perihan Koca
Julia Damphouse

Today’s Turkish election will test whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can hold on to power. His opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has made a pact with ultranationalists — showing that left-wing and Kurdish movements have to build an opposition of their own.

Supporters wave flags during a rally for the Green Left Party (YSP) in Diyarbakir, Turkey, May 13, 2023. (Mehmet Masum Suer / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Interview by
Max Zirngast

Turkey’s elections this May 14 were widely considered the most important in the country’s recent history. At stake was not only the future composition of the parliament, but a decision on the country’s political system and the legacy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two decades in power. After an unusually short election campaign marked by repression and state censorship, voter turnout was nevertheless close to 90 percent.

President Erdoğan’s main opponent was Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). He campaigned on the defense of democratic norms such as the separation of powers, and a return to the rule of law and a parliamentary system. Yet, he fell short of predictions, with his 44.9 percent of the vote placing him substantially behind Erdoğan, who scored 49.5 percent. The incumbent thus goes into today’s runoff vote with every chance of victory.

The result was even clearer in the parliamentary election, where the People’s Alliance — a coalition of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and far-right nationalist and religious parties — won an outright majority. By contrast, the progressive Alliance for Labor and Justice, led by the Green Left Party (YSP), took just 10 percent. It had run in the election in place of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which would have been threatened with exclusion if it had stood under its own name.

But even though Erdoğan’s result was better than expected, his failure to reach the 50 percent mark means that the Turkish opposition still has a chance to topple him today. What does this mean for socialist parties? Perihan Koca is a leading member of the Social Freedom Party (TÖP), elected as a member of parliament for the southern province of Mersin on YSP’s list. She spoke to Jacobin’s Max Zirngast about the left alliance’s position on the runoff and prospects for the Left in the period to come — with or without Erdoğan as president.

Max Zirngast

First, we would like to hear your assessment of the election results. What is your assessment of the parliamentary result, and what opinion is emerging in light of the presidential vote?

Perihan Koca

First of all, we must note that like all recent elections in Turkey, these were not free and fair elections. Apart from the already unfair distribution of opportunities and resources available to those forces already in control of the state apparatus, there was also the fact that the HDP had to campaign under a different name due to the threat of a party ban. Besides this, there were also numerous irregularities reported on election day at polling locations. Many objections have been lodged, and appeals have been made to repeat the election.

The reality is this: there will be no remotely free and fair elections under the existing administration. At the same time, these irregularities can’t blind us to the fact that the despotic government still has support within the population.

If we base our analysis on the official results, we see that the vote for Erdoğan’s AKP has dropped by 7 percent since the 2018 elections. There are two reasons for this: the economic crisis and the impact of the February 6 earthquake. According to recent data, eighteen million out of the total eighty-five million people in our country live below the poverty line. Inflation and especially the cost of food have reached staggering proportions, and unemployment is rampant, especially among young people. Turkey’s neoliberal capitalist model of accumulation has been in a deep crisis for years, stoking conflicts and contradictions among different factions of the state apparatus and sectors of capital. These clashes are precisely what led to the AKP’s setbacks.

But at the same time, the wearing down of the government by these disasters and conflicts has not directly translated into a political shift in favor of democratic forces or the socialist left. The crisis of the socialist left is ongoing, which can lead the people’s anger and frustration to be channeled in a fascist direction. I deliberately say “can” because there is no fully consolidated fascism in Turkey yet.

Max Zirngast

What do you make of the Right’s performance in these elections?

Perihan Koca

While in recent years we have focused primarily on the growing fascistic tendencies of Erdoğan’s reactionary conservative administration, various Turkish nationalist and fascist groups with much older origins have also made gains in this election. They total about 25 percent, but their vote is spread across several parties and even across the various coalitions that make up the government, as well as the bourgeois opposition. Currently they are divided and cannot harness the appearance of strength that unity might bring them. But it remains possible that through further economic and political crises and their relative electoral success, the Turkish nationalist groups could unite into a single movement.

Many people expected that Erdoğan would be significantly weakened by this presidential election. But he received 49.5 percent of the vote. How he managed this is still not entirely clear. If he had received just half a percentage point more he would have been reelected in the first round. It was assumed that Kılıçdaroğlu, the candidate of the bourgeois-democratic opposition, would come out ahead at least in the first round. This was also what most pollsters indicated.

On election night, a real psychological-political war broke out over who would gain the moral high ground and win the battle to interpret the meaning of the results. However, it is obvious that a whole series of negotiations took place between many different parties and factions of the state on election night and the following days. Opposition forces like us, of course, were not invited to the table in these negotiations.

As we face the second round, we must ensure that as many people as possible go to the polls and vote for the opposition candidate, despite his myriad of shortcomings and his recent further arrangement with an ultranationalist-racist fringe party. But it is also crucial that the Left strengthens its programmatic and organizational independence and prepares itself for the coming period.

Max Zirngast

You ran as the Alliance for Labor and Freedom. The YSP lists also included socialist candidates from other parties. The Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) ran in many places with its own list in the alliance. How do you evaluate the work of the alliance?

Perihan Koca

Our alliance clearly performed below its potential. It is a result that we must discuss and evaluate collectively. Still, 10 percent of the vote is not nothing and will give us the opportunity to represent the burning concerns of the people in parliament. We will be the voice of the people in parliament — the political arena of the ruling class — alongside many of our socialist and democratic comrades. Ultimately, we will not abandon the people.

We have left behind the debate about the TIP contesting the elections with its own candidates under the umbrella of our alliance. There was much debate about it, but we are leaving it in the past. Of course, we let the party know that we thought that its desire to run under its own name is legitimate, but effectively took the wrong form. But ultimately this is not a debate we should continue to dwell on, and it would be good if all the alliance partners restrained themselves in the future. We are glad that four TIP deputies will enter the parliament and we will fight together with them.

Our aim as an alliance was to get one hundred deputies into the six-hundred-member parliament. It was a lofty goal, but certainly not unattainable. The prospects for us did not seem bad. But the short campaign period and problems arising from alliance’s internal conflicts meant that we fell short of our potential.

Max Zirngast

The presidential election is now entering its second round. What is the strategy of the Alliance for Labor and Freedom and your party, TÖP?

Perihan Koca

As an alliance, we did not run a presidential candidate. We have openly called for people to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu. We have made the tactical decision to support the bourgeois candidate, for the restoration of democratic norms, in order to defeat Erdoğan in this election. Although we are not on the same side on many issues, and in terms of class politics he is certainly not our friend, extraordinary circumstances call for strategic decision-making.

Could we have called for a boycott of the election? The defeat of Erdoğan’s government is crucial for the working class and the peoples of Turkey. In light of our sense of political responsibility and our evaluation of the current balance of power, we could not consider a boycott the right thing to do, and supported Kılıçdaroğlu. Of course, we will maintain this position in the second round.

It would not be a revolutionary stance given the current situation to raise hopes among people that elections will take us very far. Kılıçdaroğlu will have an even more difficult time in the second round, and his additional second-round alliance with nationalist forces distances him even further from our positions. Nevertheless, we are still calling for people to vote for him in the runoff, because the main goal is to defeat Erdoğan.

It is important to note that an electoral defeat would also not be the end of the world. We will explain this to the people as well. The real struggle is in the streets, in our communities, and in our workplaces. And it is precisely this struggle that we must push even harder in the coming period, no matter what the political balance of power in parliament and the institutions looks like. But this does not mean that we underestimate the possibilities of political representation in bourgeois institutions, and as a deputy I will try to do everything I can not only to represent the interests of the people, but also to strengthen their self-organization.

Max Zirngast

You were elected as a deputy in Mersin. What was the election campaign like on the ground?

Perihan Koca

Mersin is one of the cities in Turkey with a large working-class population based in industrial, port, and agricultural areas, and a large service sector. It is the eleventh-largest city in the country. In addition, the population tends to be very young, and there has been ongoing migration from Kurdish regions for years. In addition, Alevis (a significant religious minority in Turkey) make up an important part of the local population.

This overall picture makes Mersin a very important city for socialists. During our campaign, we had frequent contact with rural workers, and with workers in industrial areas, in the port, and in the service sector. We went to Kurdish and Alevi neighborhoods. We met with women and with young people. I can say from the bottom of my heart: these meetings constantly boosted our motivation and morale. We drew strength from these meetings. All parts of the population had high hopes. We saw firsthand how these crises have made their lives a living hell. But we also felt the anger and the will to exact change, and we will continue to do everything we can to be the voice of that change.

Max Zirngast

What will your strategy be as a congresswoman? What issues will you emphasize and what are your goals?

Perihan Koca

The political strategy of the Social Freedom Party is based on the idea that Turkey needs a democratic republic. We believe that a thorough democratic transformation — which the Turkish bourgeoisie has repeatedly neglected and ultimately left unfinished — can only be realized by a political force supported by the working class and the oppressed.

The way we see it, the Turkish state is a despotic bourgeois state that emerged as a restoration of the Ottoman state. In place of this state, we advocate for the power of the councils, that is, direct democratic-participatory bodies of the people.

On the way to this goal we support the reforms demanded by recent social struggles — reduction of working hours, freedom of organization, freedom of expression, the right to strike, the prohibition of lockouts, equal rights for women, as well as various struggles against the ecological crisis and the capitalist hyper-exploitation of nature, the enforcement of an effective children’s rights policy, the constitutional guarantee of all the existential rights of the Kurds, the enforcement of secularism worthy of the name, among other policies.

We advocate the creation of a new a popular constitution that can guarantee these rights and reforms. This constitution would mean a real shift in the balance of power between capital and labor and give people the opportunity to develop, self-organize, and more effectively promote their interests. We believe it will advance the struggle for socialism. This kind of change can’t just be rhetorical; we also need material change.

We will use our voice in parliament to strengthen the organization of the working class and the oppressed, and to represent the concerns and demands of the people.