Turkey local elections: Erdogan tastes bitter defeat as class struggle rises

On Sunday 31 March, the Turkish masses inflicted the biggest electoral defeat on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since he came to power more than 20 years ago. These local elections returned a vote against Erdogan rather than one for the bourgeois opposition, which inspired little enthusiasm. Nonetheless, these elections are symptomatic of a storm of anger that is wearing down Erdogan’s authority. His days could be numbered.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) came out on top with 37.77 percent, claiming 35 out of 81 provinces. With 35.49 percent of the vote, Erdogan’s AKP was pushed into second place for the first time in its history. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to reclaim the major metropolitan cities, Istanbul and Ankara, after losing them to the opposition in 2019. It lost many other municipalities across the country, including the AKP strongholds.

Masses say NO to Erdogan

Even though Erdogan was not running in the elections himself, he turned them into a referendum on his presidency. This proved to be a big mistake, despite rolling out all his usual tricks of voter fraud and controlling the mainstream media. As early as January, according to one report, 4,450 out-of-town people were registered as voters in seven government buildings in Iğdır: a province the AKP had lost in 2019. Meanwhile, the public broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) covered Erdoğan and other AKP members and mayoral candidates for 1,945 minutes, while it covered the main opposition CHP leader Ozgur Özel for a total of 25 minutes over 40 days.

In videos on social media, soldiers and police officers who were transported into town can be seen voting in Kurdish provinces, in some places voting in uniform despite this being banned. There were also incidents of double voting and violence against polling officials who objected to irregularities, likely by plainclothes soldiers and police officers. None of this fundamentally improved Erdogan’s fortunes.

Erdogan has been desperately trying to regain Istanbul since losing it to the CHP in the 2019 elections. For months, he campaigned personally for Murat Kurum: the AKP’s mayoral candidate, and former AKP environment minister. But it was clear that Erdogan’s base has been significantly reduced. At one rally he remarked: “We used to have 1.5 million people in this square. Now we have 650,000 people but we will not stop.”

Unable to offer anything to the masses, Erdoğan tried to appeal to religion. He led prayers at the Hagia Sophia, reviving an old tradition practised by Ottoman sultans before waging war. He even tried to pull at the heartstrings of the electorate by announcing that this would be his last election. But despite all his efforts, CHP held onto Istanbul with 60.43 percent of the vote. He also lost the next three largest cities to the CHP: Izmir, Bursa, and Antalya.

For the first time in its history, the AKP lost strongholds Denizli and Afyonkarahisar. In the Black Sea region, the mining provinces and towns, which are traditionally conservative and AKP-MHP aligned, shifted to the CHP. The provinces Amasra, Bartin and Zonguldak, and the mining town Soma in Manisa gave the AKP-MHP government a resounding rejection. In Adiyaman, one of the provinces worst affected by the earthquake, the CHP won for the first time in 47 years.

Even in the provinces that the AKP held onto, their decline was stark. In Kayseri, known as the AKP’s ‘birthplace’, its vote share fell from 63.3 percent in 2019 to 38.63 percent. In Konya, support fell from 73 to 49.43 percent, and the AKP lost the Seydişehir district, where strikes and protests by workers and farmers have been raging. In Kahramanmaras, another AKP stronghold and the epicentre of last year’s earthquake, votes for the AKP fell from 67 to 42.1 percent. In Gaziantep, which has become the site of wildcat strikes and union drives, the AKP share of the vote fell from 53.97 to 38.82 percent.

Meanwhile, the AKP’s alliance partner, the far-right MHP, saw its vote share fall from 7.44 percent in 2019 to 4.99 percent in the 31 March elections. These results were made worse by the fact that the AKP lost provinces to the New Welfare Party (YRP): a far-right Islamist outfit that joined Erdogan’s alliance in the May 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections. The YRP ran independently after talks for an alliance with the AKP collapsed, doubling its vote shares to 6.19 percent from the May 2023 elections.

AW171648Unable to offer anything to the masses, Erdoğan tried to appeal to religion / Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Twitter

The AKP lost Urfa, the second-largest Kurdish province, to the YRP after the former’s vote share fell from 60.81 percent in 2019 to 33.63 percent. The YRP also won the Anatolian province Yozgat after the AKP’s vote fell from 40.8 to 26.8 percent. In total, the YRP took 65 municipalities and districts from the AKP and MHP.

In the face of these humiliating results, Erdogan cut a notably demoralised figure in his post-election speech, sheepishly stating that the AKP "did not get the result we wanted and hoped for”, and promising to “take the necessary steps by weighing the messages given by the nation at the ballot boxes in the most accurate and objective way.”

Though he also likened the outcome to the Islamic defeat at the Battle of Uhud by polytheist Quraysh clans in the 7th Century, after which the Muslims emerged strengthened and scored a victory at the Battle of the Trench. Erdogan wasn’t fooling anyone with this final stab at religious demagogy: his position had been dealt a severe blow, from which he might not recover.

Attempts at repression are not working either. The victory of Abdullah Zeydan in the mayoral elections for the Kurdish province of Van was overturned and handed to the AKP candidate. This sparked protests, which the government banned and met with riot police using tear gas and water cannon. But protests quickly spread to other Kurdish provinces, and Turkish cities in the west. On the following Thursday, Zeydan was reinstated as the winner, as Erdogan backed off in fear of sparking a bigger movement. Although he has imposed protest bans and curfews on several Kurdish provinces protesting electoral fraud, and will likely attempt to overturn other results, this could also backfire.

Brutal economic crisis

Such a defeat has been long threatened yet Erdogan has always been able to wriggle out, what has changed? Turkey has been in the throes of a deep economic crisis for a long time, and the intensification of this crisis was a decisive factor. For years, Erdogan allowed inflation to spiral, keeping the economy afloat through credit, and lowering interest rates. Official inflation is 68.8 percent (expected to peak at 80 percent in the summer), although real inflation is said to be 124.63 percent. The Turkish lira has lost 83 percent of its value against the dollar in the last five years and is set to depreciate even further.

A majority of the population has been pushed into poverty as household incomes are falling well short of inflation. According to a report by the Basic Needs Association (TIDER), the number of people in need of basic food has increased by 5 percent in the last year due to high inflation and the 2023 earthquake. Nearly a million people are facing dire food insecurity.

Erdogan Image Recep Tayyip Erdoğan TwitterThe depth of the capitalist crisis is forcing Erdogan to stay the course, meaning there were no handouts ahead of the 31 March elections / Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Twitter

Less than 10 months ago, Erdogan and his ruling AKP secured another term after beating the opposition in a knife-edge election in a runoff vote. In the runup to those elections, Erdogan rolled out a spending spree to insulate – and bribe – the electorate from the impact of the economic crisis. He has performed this manoeuvre many times before.

However, skyrocketing inflation meant that, once he secured his seat, his government pivoted and rolled out tightening measures. Erdogan’s new team raised interest rates from 8.5 percent to a staggering 50 percent in 10 months. This austerity programme slowed economic growth and raised borrowing costs (when a majority of the population is living off credit), all while prices for basic necessities like food and fuel continue to soar.

The depth of the capitalist crisis is forcing Erdogan to stay the course, meaning there were no handouts ahead of the 31 March elections. The severe hardship is leading to an epidemic of suicides amongst workers as well as students. Public suicides have become a regular occurrence.

Added to all this is the lingering effects of the February 2023 earthquake, which struck the south and southeast, and left millions of people homeless. Promises of rebuilding have not been kept, and more than 800,000 people continue to live in tents. Moreover, nobody has been officially held accountable for the disaster, which is not surprising given the close connections between Erdogan and the racketeers in the construction sector.

The anger and class hatred of the masses was audible across the country on 31 March. In Beyoglu, a district of Istanbul and Erdogan’s hometown, an angry pensioner and former AKP supporter said to Al Jazeera: “I voted for the CHP for the first time in my life. And if inflation doesn't stop, we will unseat the president.”

A worker in Uskudar, another district of Istanbul said to Medyascope: “I have been voting for the AKP for 21 years, but for the first time I did not vote for them in this election. Do you know why? You know the procession of cars, where one politician is followed by his aides by another 15 cars, like Hollywood stars? That’s why. I know people dying of hunger in the Republic of Turkey. Can there be such preposterousness? If the people elected you, then you must see the people. If you don't, you will be punished like this.”

The Evrensel Daily spoke to a group of workers who said they were former AKP supporters. One worker said that his “body had enough of struggling to make ends meet” so he had convinced 20 members of his family to vote for the CHP. Another worker added that he had never voted for any party other than the AKP in his life “but we are fed up. They haven’t left anything of the economy or anything else. Now I can’t even stand to see the AKP’s brochure.”

Erdogan defeated despite the opposition

Despite Erdogan’s defeat, there is no party on the Turkish political scene capable of addressing any of this misery. Voter turnout is generally high in Turkish elections, but the run-up to the local elections was marked by voter apathy, with some estimates for turnout as low as 72.37 percent, compared to 84.67 percent in 2019. This is a reflection of the fact that many people did not see an alternative to the AKP and chose to vote for ‘none of the above’.

OO speech Image Özgür Özel TwitterThe CHP campaign made sure not to draw any attention to the economic crisis / Image: Özgür Özel, Twitter

The CHP campaign made sure not to draw any attention to the economic crisis, and instead focused exclusively on Erdogan’s “one-man rule”. The campaign was also marred by anti-Kurdish chauvinism, with Burcu Köksal, the CHP mayoral candidate for the western Turkish province of Afyonkarahisar, stating that if she is elected “the doors of the municipality will be open to all parties except the [Kurdish] Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party DEM Party.” Despite attempts by the national party to sweep these remarks under the rug as merely “a slip of the tongue” (!), in part because they were mindful of the Kurdish vote, we should be under no illusions about the CHP’s real character.

In the parliamentary and presidential elections, the CHP refused to allow the DEM into their alliance following objections from nationalists in their alliance and also stayed quiet as the DEM and Kurds were being attacked by racist thugs. Moreover, in Hatay, the province worst hit by the February 2023 earthquake, the CHP reran the hated CHP mayor Lutfu Savas, formerly an AKP member and mayor of Antakya in Hatay, who is a widely hated figure in Turkey for his well-known corruption.

It was Savas who issued permits for the construction of buildings that were not in compliance with the country’s building code, and did not conduct oversight of construction projects. There were hundreds of complaints against him before the earthquake, which the CHP and AKP both ignored. On a memorial event for the first-year anniversary of the earthquake, Savas, along with Fahrettin Koca, AKP Health minister, and CHP leader Ozgur Ozel, were booed and shouted off stage and then chased away by protestors family members of the victims of the earthquake. Despite having the blood of thousands on his hands, the CHP refused to field a new candidate and backed Savas.

Following calls for early presidential elections, Ozgur Ozel refused, saying this would be “unfair” to those who voted for the AKP and MHP last year! Given the pathetic character of the CHP, and the absence of any class-based alternative, reactionary groupings were able to make some ground. As noted, the YRP was able to steal some seats from Erdogan. The party is led by Fatih Erbakan, son of former Prime Minister Necmettein Erbakan who was Erdogan’s mentor. In these elections, a layer from Erdogan’s base turned to the YRP.

The YRP ran on a reactionary anti-LGBT and anti-women platform, but Erbakan also capitalised on the economic crisis. He slammed Erdogan for the starvation pensions being given to retirees, the dismal minimum wage and the cost of living crisis, as well as using anti-NATO talking points to tap into the distrust of imperialism within Turkish society.

The war in Gaza and the Erdogan regime’s trade relations with Israel presented another opportunity for Erbakan to exploit. There is mass support for Palestine in Turkey, including in Erdogan’s own base. Erdogan has been making headlines internationally for attacking Israel and Netanyahu, but in reality, Turkey’s trade relations with Israel have increased six-fold under his regime in the last 20 years. Turkey has become Israel’s third-largest trading partner, tying with Germany after the US and China.

Since 7 October, Turkey’s trade with Israel has only increased. Turkey sends Israel a long list of goods including steel and gunpowder, which are used to make weapons to kill Palestinians. Azeri oil is also transferred to Israel through Turkey, providing Israel with 41 percent of its oil needs.

Early on in the war, a journalist in exile revealed that the majority of such trade is being conducted by the AKP-aligned Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (MUSIAD). Erdogan’s own son, Bilal Erdogan’s company is also involved in trade with Israel. And it was recently reported that Erdogan is himself personally involved in trade with Israel, via the Turkey Wealth Fund (TWF), which recently shipped 21 tons of boron, a valuable mineral, from Turkey to Israel.

In recent weeks, dozens of people have been arrested for protesting and calling for an end to these trade relations. Even at AKP rallies, banners reading 'End the shame of trade with Israel' have been raised and swiftly removed by police, followed by arrests. In the context of the crisis at home, the repression is adding to the hatred of AKP and becoming a catalyst for the anger of the masses.

Class collaboration and opportunism on the ‘left’

One can easily imagine what a real socialist or communist party could achieve in this febrile situation by attacking the crisis of Turkish capitalism and Erdogan’s hypocritical ties with imperialism and the butchers in Israel. Unfortunately, serious left leadership is woefully lacking.

OO Image Özgür Özel TwitterThe left-wing parties de facto collaborated with the CHP instead of providing a truly class-independent opposition / Image: Özgür Özel, Twitter

The left-wing parties de facto collaborated with the CHP instead of providing a truly class-independent opposition. The Kurdish-based left-wing party, DEM Party (formerly known as HDP), ran their own candidates in some provinces and supported the CHP in others, albeit unofficially. In Istanbul, the party ran their own candidates but encouraged their supporters to vote for the CHP. The DEM party failed to address the severe economic crisis faced by the masses. Instead, it limited itself to the fight against “one-man rule”.

Despite their limitations, the DEM Party was able to take back all the provinces they had previously won in the 2019 elections: Diyarbakir, Mardin, Batman, Siirt, Hakkari, Van, and Igdir. They also won Agri and Mus from the AKP and won a district in Tunceli. In Batman, the DEM Party candidate Gülistan Sönük, became the mayor of the province, with a margin of nearly 50 points over the HUDA-PAR. Again, this was all more a reflection of Erdogan’s weakness than DEM’s strength.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP) is plagued by opportunism. Erkan Bas, leader of the TİP, ran as the mayoral candidate for the industrial town of Gebze. The CHP supported his candidacy there and in return, the TİP did not run candidates in areas CHP was at risk of losing.

The party also ran Gökhan Zan, a retired footballer who was a candidate of the far-right IYI party in the parliamentary elections, for mayor of Hatay. Zan, who is from Hatay, gained popularity after the 2023 earthquake when he posted a video begging for help for victims. The TİP thought they could capitalise on this. However, less than two weeks before the elections, TİP announced its withdrawal of the Zab’s candidacy following bribery allegations. Additionally, the TİP ran Suleyman Şencan, former district chairman of the DEVA Party (a split from the AKP), as a candidate.

This opportunism and lack of a fighting socialist programme prevent either the DEM or the TİP from emerging as convincing points of expression for the rage of the masses.

Class struggle rises!

Nevertheless, under the pressure of the cost of living crisis, the class struggle is beginning to ratchet up. The elections took place against a backdrop of yet another surge in strikes. Turkey hasn’t seen such levels of strike action and trade union organisation since the 1960s and 1970s. The depth of the economic crisis is pulling all layers into struggle: pensioners, farmers and, students alike.

In February, workers at Eti Aluminyum (in Konya's Seydişehir district, which the AKP went on to lose), an aluminium factory walked off the job and protested against the bureaucratic union leadership for not fighting for higher wages. As soon as news of the wildcat strike spread, farmers in Konya began to protest, driving their tractors into the city centre to protest against rising costs.

Workers at a textile factory, Ozak Tekstil, in Urfa, left the state-linked Hak-is trade union over starvation wages and harassment by the union leaders, and began organising with Birtek-sen, an independent trade union. The bosses responded by firing more than 500 workers at the factory of 700, setting off a bitter strike, with solidarity protests held by workers in various cities across the country.

The strike was defeated but in the words of one Ozak Tekstil worker: “the strike was like a school… our view of the world has changed. My political view has also changed. I was a former AKP Party member. But I saw that they were on the side of capital.” This is a sign of the times!

Erdogan Image Пресс служба Президента Российской Федерации Wikimedia CommonsThe Marxists have long argued that Erdogan’s seemingly unassailable position could not withstand the crisis of Turkish capitalism forever / Image: Пресс служба Президента Российской Федерации, Wikimedia Commons

As the workers’ movement develops, the bosses and the state are mobilising to crush it. Independent trade union leaders are regularly arrested and receive death threats. The home of Kanber Saygili, President of the independent trade union confederation Limter İş (DİSK) was raided by the police and he was arrested. In the process, the police broke his leg. Deniz Gider, organiser for the independent construction union İnşaat-İş was put under house arrest with an electronic device around his ankle. Birtek-Sen leader Mehmet Turkmen has been arrested several times this year and slapped with a 1.5 million Turkish lira fine for leading the Ozak Tekstil strike. The clash between the Turkish bosses and state (whoever runs the government) and the organised working class will only intensify.

The Marxists have long argued that Erdogan’s seemingly unassailable position could not withstand the crisis of Turkish capitalism forever. We explained that, sooner or later, cracks would emerge in the foundations of his regime, precipitating collapse. That time is now. Erdogan emerges from these elections hobbled. The lack of any serious political alternative has led the Turkish masses to reluctantly use the bourgeois opposition to strike a blow at the AKP.

But while the CHP are celebrating, their narrow victory (in terms of national vote share) belies their own unpopularity. They have stated themselves they will continue the ‘economic orthodoxy’ (i.e. cuts and austerity to drive down inflation) that has eroded Erdogan’s support base. If Erdogan is toppled, they will inherit a crisis government, amidst a historic economic disaster. In this context, we will see all sorts of groupings – including reactionary ones – tested by the masses, as they desperately search for a way out.

But despite the total lack of any political point of expression, rising class struggle will continue to erupt outside of parliament in a wave of strikes and protests. In this context, our ideas can find fertile ground. The communists of the IMT (soon to be the Revolutionary Communist International) offer an open hand to workers and youth in Turkey who are burning with hatred for the rotten capitalist system, the crimes and mismanagement of its representatives, and the horrors of imperialism they aid and abet.

To this layer of revolutionaries, we say: down with Erdogan! Down with all the reactionary bourgeois parties! For a revolutionary solution! Join the Revolutionary Communist International!

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