Socialist Alternative

Turkey: Just the Beginning

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What started as a protest to save a park became a massive movement against the authoritarian regime. Facing savage police violence, new layers of workers and youth rose up to fight for their rights. They are here to stay, writes KAI STEIN.

‘Warlike violence’ was how Taksim Solidarity, the committee coordinating 127 protest groups in Turkey, described the actions of the police who stormed and cleared Gezi Park near Taksim Square in Istanbul on 15 June. “There was a concert by a well-known musician with hundreds of people and families in a festival atmosphere in the square and then, suddenly, from all sides the police came with water cannons and tear gas”, said Martin Powell-Davis, member of the National Union of Teachers executive and Socialist Party, who was part of a trade union delegation to Gezi Park.

The police, who had been bussed in from all over the country, violently ended the peaceful occupation that had started on 31 May. They used rubber bullets, stun grenades and intense tear gas. They carried out attacks in the hotels used as emergency hospitals and places of refuge around Taksim Square.

The movement started as a protest against plans to fell trees to make space for a shopping mall on the site of the park, and for the reconstruction of an Ottoman-style military barracks. The violent repression sparked an uprising of millions all over Turkey, with daily demonstrations, occupations of squares and local protests. On 4 and 5 June, KESK, the public-sector trade union confederation, called a strike against the police violence.

For more than two weeks, riot police tried to silence the protests. On 15 June, the Turkish doctors’ association reported that five people had been killed, and 7,478 injured, four critically. Ten people had lost an eye by police shooting tear gas canisters. Strike action was also called on 16 June against renewed police brutality, supported by DISK, the left-wing trade union confederation representing more than 300,000 members, and by a number of professional groups of doctors, engineers and dentists.

There is a pause in the movement now. However, despite the huge repression and arrests, even clamping down on people using blogs, tweets and Facebook, there is still resistance. People are entering the squares in silent protest. This shows the strong determination of the activists and the disgust at the state violence. New acts of brutality could reignite the mass protests.

The parties and organisations on the left, including the trade unions, should use the time to organize debates and discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of the protest movement. This could be through a country-wide congress in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, to bring the activists together, with the aim of building a strong socialist movement based on the interests of the workers and poor, which could offer an alternative to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian regime.

A new generation

The weeks of protest reflected the changes that have taken place in Turkey. The economic boom after the collapse in 2001 allowed Erdogan to strengthen his support and remain in power for more than a decade. It also created a new generation of workers and youth who are not satisfied with precarious jobs, low wages and unemployment.

A layer of middle-class and working-class people do not accept the paternalism of the state, and Erdogan’s decrees on alcohol and what clothes to wear, his insistence that families should have three children, and attacks on abortion rights. In particular, working-class and middle-class women have developed a new self-confidence.

While the focus was on the occupations of the main squares, bitter battles between police and working-class people unfolded day by day with little media attention in the poorer areas of Istanbul, Ankara and many other cities. Erdogan attempted to blame foreign powers and their media, as well as the opposition parties, mainly the CHP (Republican People’s Party), for the protests. He is looking for scapegoats and his comments show that he does not understand the fundamental change that has taken place in society.

For years, Turkish politics have been reduced to two wings of the ruling class fighting each other. On the one side, the Kemalists, named after Kemal Attatürk (‘father’ of the modern Turkish state), who use secular ideology and were deeply rooted in the state bureaucracy, judiciary and military. They were responsible for the brutal military coup in 1980 that crushed the left.

On the other side, are the so-called moderate Islamic forces around Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party). For more than ten years, they have pushed back the Kemalists. They have purged the once mighty military leadership of the Kemalists and established their own networks.

The movement, however, is not just the reappearance of the Kemalists, who rallied in 2007, expressing the fear of Islamisation when AKP’s Abdullah Gül took office as the new president with his wife wearing a headscarf. A big section of the demonstrations used the symbols of the Kemalists – Turkish flags, Atatürk pictures – to show their anger. But none of the Kemalist parties dared to lead the protests. CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, together with Gül, called for restraint on all sides. The fascist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), also Kemalist, denounced the movement, claiming it was dominated by the radical left. Some groups, like the right-wing youth organisation, TGB (Youth Union of Turkey), tried to intervene but with very limited success.

For the very first time, many people found themselves holding up the Turkish flag or Atatürk banners and, to their surprise, alongside them they saw Kurdish flags and symbols – they were fighting together. The strong feeling of unity was expressed by the fans of Istanbul’s three football clubs, Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, who buried their tribal allegiances and linked arms as ‘Istanbul United’.

A survey conducted by Bilgi University found that 40% of the protesters were between 19 and 25 years old. Almost two thirds were aged 30 or under. More than half had been on their first demonstration, and 70% said that they were not close to any political party. This new generation has had its first taste of Turkish state brutality. The movement brought completely different layers together, united by the feeling that ‘enough is enough’.

Environmentalists started the struggle. Then came public-sector workers, under threat of privatization, job and wage cuts, followed by Turkish Airline workers demanding strike action, and trade unionists demanding democratic rights. Young people alienated by the paternalism of the government crowded the squares. Women took to the streets against the effects of the creeping attacks on their rights. Kurdish people demanded change as, despite the unofficial peace talks between the government and the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), Kurdish guerrillas, 8,000 journalists, politicians and activists remain in prison.

They came together under the slogan, ‘Tayyip istifa’ (‘Tayyip [Erdogan] resign’), which dominated the streets at the beginning of the country-wide wave of protests. They may have used the symbols of the past but their aspirations extended far beyond the limited offers of the rotten politicians of the CHP. The determination of the protesters was remarkable.

The movement’s momentum

On 31 May, the police brutality turned the environmental protest into an uprising. Spontaneous demonstrations took place all over the country. Every evening people banged pots and pans in the working-class areas and suburbs. During the first weekend, 67 cities witnessed demonstrations. On 1 June, the police were withdrawn from Taksim Square. A feeling of euphoria spread; people were saying that the movement had won. A festival atmosphere prevailed in all the big, occupied squares, not only in Istanbul.

While the speed and spread of the protests, and the willingness to take to the streets every day despite the police violence were inspiring, the protests were hardly coordinated. Action committees were set up but focused mainly on how to organize first aid, doctors, food, tents and other practical questions. They were set up by left groups and organisations but did not offer a way to include the majority of protesters in the debates and decision making.

There were no assemblies such as those seen in the Spanish protests or in Greece. Sosyalist Alternatif (CWI in Turkey) proposed the setting up of such assemblies in the squares, workplaces, neighborhoods, towns and villages, to form committees of elected representatives, subject to recall at all levels. A democratically controlled and elected leadership was necessary. Without such structures the movement, which had rapidly spread to 88 provinces and all major cities, was not able to develop a strategy of how to achieve its demands. Erdogan’s plan of attrition had some effect, wearing down the movement with daily clashes with the police.

The two-day strike called by KESK on 4 and 5 June was an important step in raising the struggle to a higher level. The organised working class is potentially the strongest power in society. KESK called on other unions to use this power and join in. Only DISK, the most left-wing trade union confederation, did so, although it limited its call for a symbolic participation in KESK’s struggle to a few hours on 5 June.

The trade unions then made little attempt to co-ordinate and develop the struggle further. KESK only called a new strike for 17 June when the movement had already suffered severe setbacks. KESK and DISK alone were not in a position to announce a general strike, but they could have offered more direction and co-ordination. They could have embarked on a series of strikes to put pressure on the other unions to join in and to offer a viable strategy to force Erdogan into retreat. Unfortunately, this was not done.

A turning point

On the sixth day of mass battles with the police, 5 June, Taksim Solidarity announced five key demands. This coalition of 127 groups based on Taksim Square (which, officially, had no leaders) became the de facto leadership of the movement. Eyup Muhcu, president of Turkey’s chamber of architects, was the spokesperson of this umbrella group. Again and again he limited the demands to stopping construction in Gezi Park, punishing those responsible for violence against demonstrators, banning the use of tear gas, and releasing those detained during the protests.

These are important demands. But they were not what had unified the movement in the days before. ‘Tayyip istifa’ was the main slogan, directed against the policies and ideology of the AKP government. Presenting the five demands as the lowest common denominator, the leadership argued that this could unify the movement. However, it failed to raise the perspective of mobilizations to oust the AKP government. Workers and youth asked themselves: was it enough to get beaten up for day after day?

Effectively, Taksim Solidarity went into retreat politically at a time when the momentum was with the movement. The KESK strike was still running and a desperate search for a strategy to achieve the aims of the demonstrators had started. It was a turning point. It allowed Erdogan – for example in the negotiations with Taksim Solidarity on 13 June – to reduce everything to environmental questions linked to Gezi Park or some police having gone too far. He was able to downplay other social issues. He used it to divide the movement into the ‘good environmentalists’ and the ‘terrorists’, who raised further demands.

Lowering the demands did not appease the government. The retreat of the movement only encouraged the ruling elite to fully crack down. After Taksim Square had been cleared, political banners had been taken down, and all that was left was a symbolic presence in the park, Erdogan went on the attack again, clearing Gezi Park with full force.

Erdogan’s support

Erdogan has claimed that he still has huge support, and that 50% had voted for him. In a trial of strength, Erdogan mobilized tens of thousands to support him on a demonstration in the capital, Ankara, on 15 June. On 16 June, protesters were blocked on motorways from entering Istanbul. Police cordoned off Taksim Square and tens of thousands once again fought running battles with them. At the same time, buses laid on by the Istanbul municipality and AKP carried people to a pro-Erdogan rally. More than 200,000 came and listened to his speech for hours.

In the absence of a strong working-class force, the AKP has been able to build its support in the last decade in opposition to the old parties, and to the military and the constant threats of coups. People were fed up with the repression by the old Kemalist elite and had turned to Erdogan who was also seen as a victim of those circles. Erdogan has support and, as a result of a ten-year boom, can draw on social reserves, although economic growth slowed significantly last year.

However, his election successes rely heavily on the enforced conformity of the media, repression and the absence of any credible opposition. When the protest started, Turkish TV stations showed cooking shows, historical documentaries or, in the infamous example of CNN Turk, a programme about penguins. Four stations who dared to report on the movement are being threatened with fines. The authorities tried to close Hayat TV, a left-wing channel. Turkey has more journalists in jail than China and Iran together. Trade union and workers’ rights are violated.

Turkey’s 10% election threshold, which was originally intended to keep pro-Kurdish parties, Islamist parties and splits from the Kemalists out of parliament, is now used against new forces. The old opposition is seen as rotten and linked to the political system that crashed when the economy did in 2001. Given the authoritarian crackdown on the protest movement, there is every reason to call for an end to this government and to question its legitimacy.

An alternative to Erdogan?

As the demonstrators do not want to see a future CHP-led government, what could be the result of the demand for Erdogan to resign? On the one side, local, regional and national committees formed out of the movement could have laid the basis for a further development of the struggle, and for a government based on the interests of workers, youth and the poor.

There also needs to be a political force in these committees that can propose such a strategy, explain it and fight for it. Rebuilding the workers’ movement linked to a broad socialist movement is necessary. This is linked to the task of forming a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme.

HDK/HDP (the People’s Democratic Congress/People’s Democratic Party) is a promising step in this direction. It developed out of an election alliance of left forces around the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party), the main left-wing, pro-Kurdish party. HDK, Halk Evleri (a left-wing movement around community centers, from a Stalinist tradition) and other left-wing organisations need to come together with the left trade unions and the new activists and workers to develop such a party.

The task for the workers’ movement and the left is also to offer a clear alternative to those who still support Erdogan. The government imposed neo-liberal policies even when the economy was still growing. While in some ways increasing living standards, Erdogan’s policies have also increased inequality. His government adopted a policy of privatizations and attacks on workers’ rights. The police were used against striking workers. The section of the capitalist class close to the AKP was allowed to enrich itself.

Erdogan tries to mobilize support by presenting himself as a defender of Islamic values, against alcohol, against kissing in public and in favor of building a mosque on Taksim Square. These are attempts to divert attention, defending himself by relying on the more conservative and religious layers in society. However, they are also affected by Erdogan’s economic attacks.

The movement must reject any attempt at state interference in people’s personal lives. At the same time, it has to stop the attempts of Erdogan to divide and rule. This is not a battle of non-religious people against religious people. Demands like an increase of the minimum wage, decent houses for all, democratic and workers’ rights can help to undermine Erdogan’s support.

The economic boom also raised expectations and a certain self-confidence among workers and youth. However, Turkey’s economy is fragile, and is heavily dependent on foreign capital. The current account deficit grew by one fifth in the first four months of this year. The slowdown in growth rates (from +8.8% in 2011 to +2.2 in 2012) is significant, given the crisis in Europe, which is Turkey’s main market. Compared to the situation in neighboring countries in Europe, like Greece and Cyprus, or in the Middle East, there is still a feeling of economic progress. However, growth rates will only return to 3.4% in 2013, according to IMF forecasts, falling short of the 4% target of the government. These predictions were made before the clampdown on the protests and their effect on domestic consumption and tourism were taken into account.

In his speeches against the movement, Erdogan also hit out against speculators with a certain religious undertone (levying interest is not allowed in Islam). “The interest [rate] lobby exploited my nation for years, but no longer”, he proclaimed. “Those who try to bring the stock exchange down… we will throttle you”. (Financial Times, 10 June)

Given the fragile economic background, and the possibility of sharp contractions due to shockwaves flowing from Europe and a reduction of foreign investment, economic and social stability seems unlikely in the coming month and years. That heralds future battles.

International framework

The Arab spring, the movements in Europe and Occupy in the US, all had an effect on the youth in Turkey. Despite Erdogan’s social support, the mass movements for democratic and social rights will learn from each other. The Turkish movement will be an inspiration for the Middle East and beyond. A right-wing regime, which has been presented as a model for Sunni Muslim countries, has been challenged by the people. The much-praised model of a modern, Islamic state has been exposed as a cover for a society in turmoil.

Turkey is a Nato member with its own ambitions to act as a regional power. The warmongering of the Turkish regime towards Syria increased the tensions there, and the numbers of refugees now in Turkey. People in the protest movement repeatedly expressed their fears of being dragged into the Syrian civil war, which has turned from a people’s uprising into a nightmare of bloody ethnic and religious battles.

The AKP regime aims to exploit the fragmentation in Iraq: oil deals are being conducted with the Kurdish north, trying to establish a zone of Turkish influence throughout the Kurdish areas. The outlook remains uncertain. Unless the working class intervenes with its own programme against sectarianism and nationalism, new ethnic and religious clashes are inevitable in Iraq over regions like Kirkuk. This will have repercussions in Turkey.

While Erdogan tries to use the Kurdish question to gain influence in the region, and has based himself on an alliance with Kurdish leaders (to allow him to become president with increased powers), he keeps thousands of Kurdish people imprisoned for demanding their rights. Kurdish aspirations to end oppression will clash with Erdogan’s aims to turn them into part of a new Ottoman-style empire run from Ankara.

Increasing tensions in the region – Israel’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, its spread to Lebanon or Turkey, conflicts between Israel and Iran with possible US involvement – can further undermine stability in Turkey. They could trigger new movements against Erdogan’s regime, as well as religious or ethnic conflicts. The primary effect of the Turkish uprising in the region, however, is to encourage workers, youth and the poor to turn back to the origins of the Arab spring: the active involvement of the masses to struggle for democratic and social demands.

Moving into action

Working-class people in all the urban centers fought hard against the police. The new layers of the working class and youth just started to get a sense of their strength. The urban middle classes, like architects, doctors and others, were also present in the movement. At the same time, Erdogan tried to mobilize the more rural population – a step that may backfire on him in the future. The polarization in society is so strong that it will encourage the further politicization of a new generation, including in the countryside.

Even at the top of society, splits and moves are becoming visible. Just when Erdogan thought he had succeeded in removing the Kemalists from strategic positions in the state bureaucracy, new splits within his own ranks were opening up. Erdogan plans not only to run for president next year (he is not allowed to stand as a prime minister a third time), but to alter the constitution, increasing presidential powers. But the incumbent, Gül, proposed a more emollient strategy to deal with the movement. He might not just step aside, as Erdogan hopes.

Over years of his ascendancy, the Gülen movement, a moderate Islamic trend based around the millionaire Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the US, supported Erdogan. And Gülen’s religious schools benefited from the privatization of education, introduced by Erdogan. However, the splits between Erdogan and Gülen became much more visible during the protests. Leading Gülen movement politicians criticize Erdogan’s authoritarian style of government.

On the one side, the AKP government felt confident enough to use the military having purged the Kemalists from the tops of the army. Police were accompanied by military gendarmes. The deputy prime minister even threatened to use the military to crush the movement on 17 June. On the other side, on the first weekend of clashes, soldiers handed out surgical masks to help protesters deal with the tear gas. Police expressed their hesitation, displeasure and indignation in acting against the movement, according to foreign media.

These are the first signs of the revolutionary process: all classes and forces are beginning to actively engage in the fate of the country. Even if there is a pause prior to the next stage in the struggle, the process that has begun is profound. Despite the temporary defeat, workers will feel encouraged to raise their demands and move into struggle. The ‘almighty’ Erdogan might have succeeded in the short-term, but the black eye he got from the movement shows that he is not invincible.

A big debate has begun on how society should be run. Huge polarization is pushing people into political debate. The old parties of the Kemalists are unable to express the anger and aspirations of a new generation – and these new layers know it. As long as no mass alternative is built, middle layers and workers may still vote for them. However, there will be attempts to form new parties of struggle. HDK could offer a way forward if it manages to penetrate deep into the Turkish working class.

Left-wing forces are needed to assist workers and youth to find the best possible way to build the workers’ movement. Marxist ideas are needed in this process to build towards a mass party, rooted in the working class, to show a way out of the nightmare of capitalism and repression. A new layer of young people have entered the scene. They are here to stay and to change Turkey. As one of the slogans most often shouted in the streets of Istanbul and Ankara has it: ‘This was just the beginning – the struggle continues’.

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