7 June 2015 was a landmark day in Turkey’s history. On that day, the alliance of left-wing and Kurdish parties known as the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered the Turkish parliament for the first time, raising high hopes for a greater political voice for its electorate. The 13 percent of the vote won by the HDP resulted in a loss of an absolute parliamentary majority for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which subsequently cancelled the so-called peace process with the PKK as a result.
Svenja Huck is a freelance journalist who writes about labour struggles and the political opposition in Turkey for a variety of publications.
Translated by Lindsay Parkhowell and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
A year later, the co-chairs of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were imprisoned, as were thousands of party members and supporters. However, despite all of this repression, the HDP has consistently defended its role in the parliament and has reacted in a level-headed way to ongoing proceedings intended to outlaw its existence. Now, the HDP has formed an even broader alliance in preparation for the approaching elections in June 2023.
A Tale of Two Alliances
For a long time, there was speculation as to whether Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections, originally scheduled for 2023, would be moved forward. This suspicion was somewhat justified by the fact that there were three elections between 2015 and 2018, but it now appears that elections will indeed be held on 18 June 2023, and thus the election campaign has already begun.
While the ruling AKP and its de facto coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are down 7 percent in current polls compared to their vote share in the last elections, two opposition electoral alliances have been established. Millet İttifakı (Nation Alliance) is led by the Kemalist-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Good Party (İYİ Parti), a group that broke away from the MHP. In addition to this so-called “group of six” are two break-away factions from the AKP, Deva and Gelecek, the Islamist Saadet Partisi (Felicity Party), and the secular-conservative Demokrat Parti (Democrat Party).
While the Nation Alliance and its politicians are extensively covered by the European media and often depicted as the new hope for Turkish democratization, the second opposition alliance, known as the Emek ve Özgürlük İttifakı (Labour and Freedom Alliance), receives far less attention. This is despite the fact that its political performance will be decisive for both the presidential elections and for everyone fighting for the renewal of democracy and social improvement in Turkey.
In addition to the HDP, another party from this alliance is already represented in the Turkish parliament: the Türkiye İşçi Partisi (TİP, or Workers’ Party of Turkey). Two of its MPs, party leader Erkan Baş and Barış Atay, were elected in 2018 on a HDP ticket and subsequently went on to found the TİP, after which journalist and HDP MP Ahmet Şık and CHP MP and lawyer Sera Kadıgil joined the party. Since then, they have mainly used the parliament as a platform to openly criticize the government, and their speeches are heavily followed and shared on social media.
They have become popular figures who address the problems of the working class and of social minorities, and who emphasize the AKP government’s political responsibility in regards to these groups. If one was to measure the size of the party through its representation at this year’s May Day Parade in Istanbul, then the TİP can indisputably be called one of the largest left-wing parties.
The Toplumsal Özgürlük Partisi (TÖP, or Social Freedom Party), heavily influenced by the Marxist theorist Hikmet Kıvılcımlı, also belongs to the alliance. It was already part of the Halkların Demokratik Kongresi (Peoples’ Democratic Congress, or HDK), from which the HDP originally emerged. In addition, there is the Emek Partisi (Labour Party, or EMEP), the Emekçi Hareket Partisi (Labourist Movement Party) and the Sosyalist Meclisler Federasyonu, (Socialist Councils Federation, or SMF).
The Candidate Question
Although the election will take place in under six months, Erdoğan is the only presidential candidate to have officially announced his candidacy so far. The Nation Alliance has not yet named a candidate, and the third alliance has not yet decided whether it will run an independent candidate or support the candidate of the Nation Alliance.
Support of other candidates is the strategy that the HDP followed in the 2019 regional elections, which led to it becoming kingmaker for the CHP, the party that went on to govern the municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara. In an interview given at the end of November, HDP co-chair Mithat Sancar claimed that the Nation Alliance should first name a specific candidate and then the two parties could start negotiating with each other. However, TİP leader Erkan Baş had already made a public call in August for left-wing parties to rally around a common candidate in the presidential election in order to eliminate the presidential system. He said that the third alliance should form a left-wing bloc in parliament to act as an “insurance policy for the people”.
The naming of a specific candidate to run against Erdoğan is being delayed for two reasons: first, the opposition wants to minimize its exposure to attack. Court cases have already been brought against many prominent CHP politicians to try to ban them from politics and send them to prison. Second, there are ongoing power struggles within the party. Although the leader of the party would traditionally represent it in the elections, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is yet to declare his candidacy. This is because the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, and Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, are also considered suitable presidential candidates by large sections of the population. Therefore, the debate over which concrete strategy the third alliance should pursue in the presidential election is still ongoing.
According to a poll by the MAK institute, support for the third alliance in October was around 10 percent of voters, 7.7 percent of them directly for the HDP. Compared to the 2018 election, this would be a loss of 4 percent of the vote. However, it does not threaten the HDP’s entry into parliament, as the original 10 percent threshold was lowered to 7.5 percent at the beginning of 2022. The reason for the change was that the AKP’s de facto alliance partner, the ultra-nationalist MHP, is now far below the original 10 percent electoral threshold in the polls.
In its 12-page programme, the alliance calls for an economic system in which people work and live humanely, democracy based on the rule of the people, a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish issue, justice, equality, and freedom for women, young people, people with disabilities, and disadvantaged groups, and the protection of nature, the environment, and cultural assets. The most pressing contemporary problems are listed as the high cost of living, low wages, unemployment, and poverty, and the most important goal is improving the working and living conditions of workers and the oppressed masses.
The costs of the economic crisis and multi-faceted societal deterioration must be paid for by foreign and domestic capital. Price increases should be stopped, redundancies should be prohibited, and an economic programme that eliminates poverty should be pursued. Within the framework of a “Programme for Social Rights”, electricity, gas, water, and the internet would be made free of charge for people with a monthly income below the poverty line. Urgent steps should also be taken to nationalize the energy and transport networks as well as the health and education sectors in collaboration with employees.
The national budget should not be used to finance the palace (meaning Erdoğan’s Presidential Complex in Ankara), wars, government followers, or foreign debt, but rather to provide income support and economic security for the people as a whole.
The Turkish Left and Migrants
There is one issue that illustrates a fundamental problem among the Turkish Left. While the alliance around the CHP and increasingly the governing coalition have begun to campaign for votes by using the issue of migration and the hosting of refugees, the Left has only tentatively commented on this issue.
Officially, there are about 4 million refugees living in Turkey, most of them from Syria, who are increasingly used as scapegoats for the worsening economic crisis as well as rising rents and falling wages. This has had brutal consequences for the refugees themselves, such as repeated pogroms carried out in migrant neighbourhoods incited by high-ranking politicians, especially those from the CHP and İyi Parti alliance. The newly founded Zafer Partisi (Victory Party) has made deporting refugees its main platform, leading to the formation of armed gangs that hunt down migrants and call for the party to do the same.
Yet solidarity with refugees is rare on the Left. Apart from small initiatives that campaign for peaceful coexistence, most socialists largely refrain from speaking out on this issue. On the one hand, this is because of a widespread mistrust of Syrians, who are often accused of sympathizing with Islamist groups and of lacking secularism, and on the other hand due to the Left in Turkey primarily being concerned with its “own” domestic issues.
However, it is precisely domestic Turkish capital and foreign capital active in Turkey that profit from the large number of refugees who are disenfranchised and pour into the labour market to secure their survival. Last year, AKP MP Mehmet Özhaseki openly said that “in some cities, Syrians keep industry running”. If Syrians were to be removed from key economic sectors, then the economy would collapse. Most Syrians work in sales, construction, and industry — one in three work in textile processing. Child labour is also prevalent, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimating that around 130,000 Syrians aged five to 14 work in manufacturing in Turkey.
In the programme outlined by the Labour and Freedom Alliance, the demands concerning this issue are brief and to the point: peace must be established in the wider region in order to ensure the return of those seeking asylum, and those who want to stay should be granted refugee status. In Turkey, due to outdated migration laws, only temporary protection and no official asylum status can be granted to refugees. As a result, they are denied basic social rights.
This issue is especially relevant for an internationalist Left, because if it is ignored, it will be exploited by right-wing parties and the most vulnerable groups will greatly suffer.
The Left and the Trade Unions
The alliance also calls for the securing of comprehensive rights to organize in the workplace. This includes the right to strike and bargain collectively in any form as well as restricting the working day to seven hours.
Although the right to organize is enshrined in the Turkish constitution, it is not actually enforced. A report by the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) shows that since the beginning of the AKP government until 2020, 17 strikes were postponed, meaning effectively banned, which affected a total of 194,000 workers. At the beginning of 2022, there were numerous wildcat strikes along with protests across the country over high inflation and rising prices for energy and food. While many of the parties involved in the alliance expressed their solidarity or participated directly in these protests, the unions did not mobilize on a large scale.
In addition, negotiations are currently underway to increase the minimum wage at the end of the year. The largest trade union federation, Türk-İş, whose leadership has traditionally been close to the government, has demanded a ridiculously low increase of 7,785 Turkish lira (397 euro). DİSK, on the other hand, has demanded an increase of 13,200 lira (673 euro). The alliance’s programme contains no demands concerning the minimum wage, whether in regard to its amount or in regards to a schedule to adjust it to inflation and rising costs.
Up until now the Labour and Freedom Alliance has not been able to establish a political hegemony, even among the progressive trade unions, which have always been traditionally guided in their politics by the CHP. In order to lead the political struggle for the rights of waged workers — not only against the current government but also against a possible future CHP government — socialists would need to firmly establish themselves within the political organs of the class. This means organizational structures with staying power, given that hostility towards trade unions is widespread in Turkey.
The Women’s Movement and the Kurdish Issue
Although the alliance is officially composed of left-wing parties, it also includes another source of political power which is probably the most courageous one currently existing in Turkey: the women’s movement. Although many feminist organizations in Turkey have indirect links to the various parties in the alliance, they are, for the most part, politically autonomous. Time and again it is the feminists who take to the streets, whether on 8 March or 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
The fact that they are only represented in relation to three of the alliance’s programme’s demands, which are also expressed in very general terms, does not sufficiently reflect their social role as a militant part of the alliance. The only concrete demand listed in the alliance’s programme is that Turkey return to observing the Istanbul Convention, which in any case has already been criticized for its ineffective implementation in countries that have ratified it.
The alliance also wants to win over the majority of Kurdish voters of the HDP. The Kurdish question is one of the “most fundamental questions facing Turkey”. In order to achieve a democratic solution and peace, a constructive and broad-based politics is needed that is able to take the expectations and concerns of all parts of the population into account. In opposition to a politics of denial and oppression, steps should be taken towards democratization and a peaceful solution. Instead of a remaining on a war footing, the Turkish state has to encourage dialogue and democratic negotiations. With regard to this issue, the right to speak one’s mother tongue and have one’s fundamental right to identity respected are of great importance.
Although another point in the programme calls for the strengthening of local political structures and the abolition of forced administrations — issues which primarily affect Turkey’s Kurdish regions — the alliance does not call for extensive autonomous rights for Kurds or for other minorities.
Turkey Needs a Fighting Left
What distinguishes the third electoral alliance from the rest of the opposition? After all, the Nation Alliance also demands the abolition of the presidential system, a return to the rule of law, and democratic rights — and will also campaign to be elected based on these proposals.
The Labour and Freedom Alliance is composed of left-wing parties, the majority of which clearly articulate a socialist society as a political goal in their own programmes. However, the word “socialism” itself does not appear in the alliance’s manifesto. Some might argue that this is because such a term is too one-sided for an alliance or that it could deter some parts of the electorate from voting for them.
Yet the alliance also does not propose a new constitution and thus even falls short of the policies of the bourgeois opposition alliance, which recently presented a raft of comprehensive constitutional reforms. The left-wing alliance claims to be not just an electoral alliance but rather a “fighting” alliance that will advocate for the rights of workers, the poor, women, and LGBTIQ+ persons, and Kurds and Alevites, both before and after the election. While the Left in Turkey remains marginalized, the alliance seeks to use the election campaign as an opportunity to spark conversations with people and convince them of the value of left-wing politics. Activists from partners within the alliance are already distributing leaflets in the main squares of all major cities and report that the population is open to and even actively seeking alternatives to the ruling parties.
The spontaneous strikes held at the beginning of the year are also an expression of the fact that people in Turkey are rebelling against their pauperization. However, there is hardly any resistance to the government’s warmongering. Some leading politicians of the left-wing alliance see their role as bringing more left-wing MPs into parliament to campaign for their causes. But the Turkish parliament is neither a place for democratic decision-making nor a place where the working classes can achieve success, facts which have been shown time and again since 2015.
Even if the Nation Alliance were to win the election and provide the next president, Turkey urgently needs a militant Left with firm roots among the workers themselves, in the trade unions, among the youth who see few options other than leaving the country, among the women who need to protect themselves against the everyday violence of the patriarchy, and among the Kurdish population, which is currently fighting on three simultaneous fronts in Turkey, Rojava, and Iran. Turkey needs a new constitution, not reforms of the current one. Creating the social power that will bring about real improvement in society is the task that a left-wing alliance must undertake.