Turkey after the attempted coup

An interview with Ron Margulies (DSIP, Turkey) for the magazine of the IS Tendency’s fraternal organisation in Germany.

by Tilman von Berlepsch

After the attempted coup d’état of the Turkish military, Erdoğan has declared a state of emergency. What powers does he have and how does he use them?

Most crucially, the state of emergency gives the government the power to rule by decree. This means that the government can issue decrees, without consulting parliament, and these decrees carry the force of law. In a state of emergency the judicial process is also simplified, making it easier to detain and arrest people, and more difficult for people to defend themselves against this.

The state of emergency was initially declared for a period of three months and then extended for another three, with Erdoğan saying that a whole year might be necessary. This is a complete abolition of basic democracy, and it is utterly unnecessary. I agree that all the people responsible for the coup must be arrested and tried, but this can and must be done within the framework of the law. The existing laws are perfectly adequate to deal with the putschists. Therefore, it is clear that the state of emergency was declared not for this purpose, but in order to give the government the power to do anything else it wants to do.

Erdoğan has launched a “purge” against supporters of the Gülen movement in the media, left-wing teachers, HDP delegates, and the so-called “Academics for Peace”. How do they deal with the repression?

The government has been using the state of emergency to attack two targets: the Gülen movement and the Kurdish movement. Everyone who has been arrested or thrown out of a job is a member or sympathiser of one of these two movements. (Except that many many mistakes are undoubtedly being made).

The crucial point is this: It is not a crime to be a supporter of Gülen or of Kurdish rights. Being involved in the coup is a crime, yes. But the government is victimising not only those involved in the coup. Everyone who had money in a bank (Bank Asya) owned by the Gülen movement or worked in the Gülen movement’s many newspapers and TV channels is being arrested. This is absurd and completely illegal.

Similarly, supporting the Kurdish movement or being an active member of HDP or fighting for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish problem are not crimes. Turkish law defines no such crimes. However, the government is involved in all-out war against the Kurds, both within Turkey and in Northern Syria. As part of this war, it is also attacking the perfectly legal organs and representatives of the Kurdish movement and its supporters. And it is using the state of emergency to do so.

Was the Turkish left / Kurdish movement weakened through the repression after the coup?

The Turkish left has been weak for a very long time now. That is because most of the left has failed utterly to oppose the AKP on the right issues. In parliament, the Peoples Republican Party (CHP), which considers itself to be social democratic and is perceived by most people to be on the left, opposes the government from a Kemalist, nationalist, anti-Islam standpoint. For example, during the peace process with the Kurdish movement, the CHP accused the government not for slowing the process down but for making concessions to the Kurds and threatening the country’s indivisible unity.

The main thing for the CHP and for much of the left to the left of CHP is to defend “secularism” against what they imagine to be the Islamist threat of the AKP.

Such opposition has no chance of finding popular support or of driving a wedge between the AKP leadership and its poor, working class base. Therefore, the left, in Parliament and outside, remains weak.

The Kurdish movement has also suffered something of a setback in the past year or so, for completely different reasons. Remember, in the general elections in June 2015 the HDP got 13%, which meant 6 million votes. This was a huge success. The success was repeated when a second general election was held in November and HDP got 10% in extremely difficult conditions. However, with the peace process jettisoned by the government, and encouraged by the successes of the Kurds in Northern Syria, the Kurdish movement launched what was a de facto attempt at autonomy in areas where they are particularly strong. This was met and repulsed by the Turkish state with extreme military force. Hundreds of Kurdish people were killed, several towns and districts were destroyed and thousands lost their homes. This has no doubt had a demoralising effect on the movement. However, the Kurdish movement as a whole remains a strong and popular mass movement. It will certainly recover from any setback it may have suffered.

The repressions have an enormous extent. 40,000 were imprisoned, 150,000 officials lost their jobs. Orhan Pamuk calls it a “terrorist regime”. Is Turkey on the way to a fascist state?

I don’t have much problem with the expression “terrorist regime”. The state is certainly terrorising people, in the sense that the fear of being arrested or losing your job is very real and very widespread. But I don’t think it’s a very useful expression. I would prefer to say that this is an increasingly authoritarian regime.

As for a “fascist state”, that is just silly! Would you have a Kurdish party and Kurdish members of parliament in a fascist state? Would you have free trade unions and strikes in a fascist state? Not everything that we dislike can be called fascism!

Is Erdoğan’s purge a reaction to his failure to introduce a presidential system? What is his new strategy?

There is a tendency, both in Turkey and abroad, to see everything in terms of Erdoğan. As if he runs the country single-handedly, as a mad and all-powerful individual. This is misleading, and not a very useful way of trying to understand what’s going on.

There is no doubt that Erdoğan would like to be executive president. But this is not the single reason for everything he does. You have to bear in mind that the conservative/Islamist political tradition Erdoğan comes from is a strongly nationalist tradition which cherishes the Turkish state and the Turkish armed forces. Yes, Erdoğan would like Turkey to be a more conservative, more religious country, but he also wants a powerful Turkey which is a big force in the region and can stand up for its own interests against the big Western powers. And, of course, he believes he and his party should be running such a Turkey.

His problem was that the Kemalist state machine – the armed forces, the bureaucracy, the judiciary – would not accept him. They considered him to be a threat to the “secular republic”, and immediately began to plan his overthrow.

This forced Erdoğan to take measures against the military/civilian Kemalist apparatus in the first period of his government. Otherwise there would have been a coup d’état and he would probably have been hanged. In that period he was in alliance with the Gülen movement. (That is why the Gülenists were able to penetrate the state machine so extensively).

Since the alliance with Gülen broke down in 2010, Erdoğan has been building an alliance with Kemalism – with the military and the rest of the Kemalist state apparatus. This has been possible because they have agreed on two major enemies of the state and on what to do for the good of Turkey. The enemies are the Gülen movement and, more importantly, the Kurdish movement. And they are attacking these two with all the forces of the state. AKP’s de facto alliance with the fascist MHP is the parliamentary expression of this alliance.

Erdoğan stands under the pressure of two competing imperial blocks. The EU and the US need Turkey as an important NATO ally. On the other hand, Turkey must arrange itself with Russia, as the reconciliation after the issue with the Russian fighter jet has shown. Where is Turkey heading to in foreign policy?

Turkish foreign policy has one immediate aim, and one more general long-term aim. The immediate aim, since the Kurdish successes against ISIS in Northern Syria two years ago, is to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state across the border. If such a state emerges, it would mean all of the long Turkish border in the south, with Iraq and Syria, would have Kurdish states on the other side. Turkey was unable to prevent the Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq, because America wanted it. They have had to come to terms with it, and have managed to establish reasonably good relations with the Barzani administration. However, the Kurdish entity that is emerging in Syria is an altogether different matter: it is run by the PKK. The Turkish state faces a situation where it will be neighbours with the organisation which it is fighting against within its own borders. It is in order to stop this from becoming reality that the Turkish army has gone into Syria. It is also for this reason that the government put an end to the peace process and opened war against the Kurdish movement within Turkey.

The more general longer-term aim of Turkish policy is to become the biggest player in the region. This appeared a more realistic perspective a few years ago, before the failure of the Syrian revolution led to complete chaos in the country. Now, with Washington supporting the Syrian Kurds as the only effective force fighting against ISIS, and Russia supporting Assad, Turkey has been cut down to size.

The HDP chairman Demirtaş spoke of the “power of the street” after the coup attempt. Why does only Erdoğan get his followers on the street, but his opponents do not? Why is there no mass movement for peace?

The coup attempt was repulsed by thousands of people who took to the streets and stood against the tanks. This had never happened before and the plotters did not expect it. Many (but not all) of the people in the streets were AKP supporters. It is important to understand that whatever the personal motivation of each individual, stopping the coup was objectively a great victory for democracy. Unfortunately, neither the HDP nor the left could see this. Because some of the people in the streets were religious and calls were issued from the mosques to stop the tanks, the left saw the crowds as “reactionary”. Demirtaş’s first statement was “We will not leave the streets to the ISIS mentality”. He corrected this within a few days and supported the crowd, but it shows you what his instinctive response was. Most of the left had the same response. Some of them not only failed to support and join the crowds, but they actually felt threatened by the people in the streets.

Building a mass movement for peace is very difficult. It is what we keep trying to do, one of our main priorities. But it is difficult when several Turkish soldiers die every single day, they are hailed as “martyrs against PKK terrorism”, and the government uses all the means at its disposal to whip up Turkish nationalism. The fact that most of the left is so distant and detached from ordinary working people does not help.

What should the left actually do?

Erdoğan’s popularity was very high before the coup. After it, he has become even more popular, his support probably reaching nearly 60%. In these circumstances, the constant and almost personal attacks on him are completely pointless. What we need to do is to drive a wedge between him and his poor, working class base, without insulting him or the people who vote for him. We need to argue that democracy and peace and the rule of law must not be trampled upon because everyone needs these things. We need to make sure that we are seen not to support Erdoğan’s overthrow by the military, that we do not support the Kemalist state, that we are not Islamophobic. I have no doubt that very many people who voted for Erdoğan must be unhappy and worried about some of his policies, about the war, about democracy. We need to be able to reach these people.

(10th of November, 2016)

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