SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 112 - October 2007

AKP wins Turkey’s election clash

IN AUGUST the Turkish parliament elected its first pro-Islamist president, Abdullah Gul, candidate of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This followed a landslide victory in the July parliamentary elections for AKP, which has its roots in pro-Islamist ideology. The AKP won nearly 47% of the vote, becoming the first government to win a re-election in 20 years, and the first since 1954 to increase its vote (up from 34%).

Notwithstanding the AKP’s background, the election results were largely welcomed by the US and EU. While the western powers harbour some concerns about even a ‘soft Islamist’ party in power in Turkey, they are heartened by the neo-liberal, pro-big business record of the AKP in its first five years in office. Turkey is of the utmost importance to the US and the major imperialist powers. It represents NATO’s second largest armed force and the country is a vital geo-strategic entity, bridging Europe, the Middle East and Eurasia.

The general election was sparked by a clash with Turkey’s powerful army generals in April over the AKP’s choice of the then foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, for presidential candidate. The ‘secular state elite’, backed by the huge army apparatus, claimed the AKP was jeopardising Turkey’s ‘constitutionally enshrined’ secularism. They strongly objected to Gul’s wife, who wears a Muslim headscarf, becoming ‘first lady’. The army chiefs felt their position would be threatened if an Islamist became president, particularly as the president has powers of veto and appointment, including deciding the heads of the armed forces. These powers mean the AKP in government, along with a presidential ally, can put in place a bureaucracy of its liking and influence the military’s chain of command.

During April, the ‘secular opposition’ organised huge anti-government rallies of up to one million people. Many protesters were genuinely worried about ‘creeping Islamism’. But a popular street slogan, ‘No sharia, no coup’, revealed that many protesters also opposed military intervention and attacks on Turkey’s limited democratic rights.

In April army leaders had posted a barely disguised threat of a military coup on their website. The military has deposed four governments since the modern Turkish state was formed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. In 1997, the military forced the Welfare Party (predecessor of the AKP) out of government, banning the party in 1998.

After the so-called ‘e-coup’, a Supreme Court hearing blocked Gul from becoming president. In response, prime minister, Recep Erdogan, brought forward the scheduled general election by four months. The July result was a big blow for the losing Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is closely linked to the army tops and state bureaucracy, getting 20.9% of the vote.

However, none of the deep divisions between the pro-Islamic government and the opposition ‘secular’ Kemalist and nationalist parties – which are, to a large degree, a struggle for power, influence and riches amongst sections of the capitalist class and elites – are fundamentally resolved by the elections.

The new divided parliament now includes ultra-nationalists and Kurdish MPs for the first time in years. Gul was only elected president in July after three rounds of voting, at which point only an absolute majority in parliament was required. He failed in the two earlier rounds to win a two-thirds majority.

The political and business elites in Ankara and Istanbul who traditionally ran Turkey – the army, police, state bureaucracy and judiciary – regard themselves under threat from a rising ‘Muslim middle class’, which was formerly largely excluded from power and influence. Since 1980, large-scale migration from rural areas to the cities created a growing religious middle class, whose AKP representatives are fighting for power within the state elite. The old ruling elite reacted angrily to the packing of state bodies with Erdogan’s religious cronies. The military was outraged by the AKP’s changes to Turkey’s institutions, removing much of the military’s influence from government.

The CHP uses the AKP’s growing influence to claim that the government wants to turn Turkey into a theocracy, to whip up fears amongst the wider population. However, over its first five years in power, the AKP showed it was a party with roots in Islam but that it is not a fundamentalist, anti-western party. Erdogan compares the AKP to Christian democrats in Western Europe. Before the parliamentary polls, Erdogan ‘purged’ the AKP’s parliamentary list of ‘religious conservatives’.

Since coming to power, the Justice and Development Party tried to follow a careful balancing act: avoiding allowing religion to provoke the secular elite, while acting in the general interests of its religious conservative supporters. The party insisted that the right to be religious in public life was part of a policy to make Turkey more democratic. The AKP was less nationalistic than previous governments and more open to negotiating a way forward on the issue of Turkey’s Kurdish national minority.

The first AKP government pushed hard for EU membership (although most EU states oppose the inclusion of Turkey for the foreseeable future, which they fear would mean bringing a large, unstable, Muslim country into the ‘club’). It signed up to an IMF programme, strengthened ties with Israel, and ‘broached’ Turkey’s ‘long-standing festering problems’ with its Kurdish national minority. Fortunately for Erdogan, his first tenure in office saw economic growth rates reach, on average, 7%. Erodogan’s neo-liberal policies saw runaway inflation fall, average income double (from a low level), and the country was opened up to foreign investment. Turkey’s strategic role increased as world demand for oil and gas grew. The Erdogan government aims to turn the country into a major supply route for Caspian and Middle Eastern gas to Europe.

But under the AKP’s first term, society became more unequal, leaving many falling behind the economic boom. IMF structural ‘reform’ was accompanied by huge cuts in public spending and privatisation. "Selling state assets has been a passion of the ruling AKP", commented the Financial Times (18 August), "even if the public is either indifferent or hostile to the idea". Around $250 billion in foreign direct investment will go to Turkey this year, compared to less than $1 billion six years ago. Much of this ‘investment’ consists of foreign companies buying assets, including in banking, telecommunications, media and consumer goods industries.

The new Justice and Development Party government most likely faces a worsening economic situation. Unemployment is at 10%, the agricultural sector is in crisis, and the tax system is in chaos (Turkey’s ‘unregistered economy’ is believed to be worth nearly 50% of the country’s gross domestic product). Economists speculate whether Turkey will have a hard or soft landing when global liquidity starts to move away from ‘emerging markets’.

The AKP is also unlikely to find a second period in office any less volatile politically. The army and secular elites are licking their wounds after electoral defeats, but new conflicts with the AKP government can arise on many issues, including Erdogan’s plans to change the constitution. Despite growing trade between Iraqi Kurdistan and south-eastern Turkey, relations between Turkey and the ‘Kurdish Regional Government’ in northern Iraq are ‘almost non-existent’. To the alarm of the US and western powers, Turkey’s army leaders pressure Erdogan to order a major cross border offensive into northern Iraq to take on Kurdish rebels from the PKK (Workers’ Party) who operate from the ‘autonomous’ Iraqi Kurdish entity.

All this shows there has never been a greater need for a mass socialist opposition in Turkey. A key task of the Turkish workers’ movement is to develop independent class policies and working-class unity across all national, ethnic and religious lines, to seriously contend with the various political representatives of Turkey’s ruling elites.

Niall Mulholland


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