The Justice and Development Party (AKP), ruling Turkey as the sole party since 2002, finds itself in a deep and longstanding crisis of hegemony. The first blow it suffered from below was the June Uprising in 2013. Ever since, the AKP and first Prime Minister then President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who de facto owns the party, have been dealt serious strikes: for instance, from the open conflict with the Gülen Movement since the end of 2013, its former brother in arms—and most importantly from the rise of the Kurdish Liberation Movement in Turkey and in Syria. This deepening crisis has not been visible in election results for some time, but with the general election on 7 June, it found an expression on the electoral stage as well.
The pro-Kurdish People`s Democratic Party (HDP) managed to enter parliament by crossing the 10% electoral threshold – an inheritance from the 1982 constitution of the military coup regime. By entering parliament the HDP had destroyed Erdoğan`s plans of changing the constitution in favor of a “presidential system.” For such a change, a significant parliamentary majority would have been necessary. Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 and has been ruling the country with a shadow cabinet ever since; his intention was to formalize this state with the change to the presidential system. He recently even admitted it when he declared that the political system has changed anyway – into a system with a very strong president – and it was now the time to make this official. The HDP, on the other hand, had built its campaign on preventing the AKP from reaching the necessary majority for such a change. When HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş made his famous remarks, “Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we will not allow you to become the President [of the new system],” it established itself as the relevant oppositional force.
The War on the Kurdish Liberation Movement
Unsurprisingly, the AKP, with Erdoğan at the forefront, declared the HDP and the Kurdish Liberation Movement to be enemy number one, which had already revealed itself in the months before the election. Erdoğan embarked on a campaign frenzy, breaching the constitutional restrictions requiring him to be impartial, and attacked the HDP with increasing desperation. This was assisted by the so-called “pool media,” several media groups that are close to Erdoğan and serve as AKP propaganda organs. This campaign led to almost 200 attacks on HDP offices, rallies, and campaigners. Bombs exploded in HDP campaign offices in Adana and Mersin; a rally in Erzurum was attacked by a fascist mob with the police idly watching; a HDP driver was murdered execution style; and to top it off, two bombs went off in the crowd at a huge rally in Diyarbakır two days before the election. This chauvinistic mobilization by the media, AKP, and Erdoğan was accompanied by military operations against the PKK –despite the fact that the “peace process” was ongoing. Already by the end of March, Turkish Armed Forces were heavily bombing “targets” in both Turkey and Northern Iraq. However, none of this helped the AKP, and the HDP`s triumph was Erdoğan`s first significant electoral defeat.
It is this climate that prepared the events that unfolded after the election. Erdoğan had long suspended the negotiations with the Kurdish movement. From the beginning, the peace and reconciliation process had been an attempt by both sides to strengthen their respective positions; it became increasingly clear that Erdoğan was losing while the Kurdish movement established itself as one of the few democratic forces in the chaotic Middle East. At the same time, the HDP, which has been an advocate for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, workers, and ethnic and religious minorities, became the new oppositional force that was drawing scores of people dissatisfied with the AKP and the old, established oppositional parties, the Kemalist Republican People`s Party (CHP) and the right-wing fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In March 2015, Erdoğan declared that there was no such thing as a Kurdish problem, and not long afterward the isolation of Abdullah Öcalan began. He has not been allowed a visit by a HDP delegation, lawyers, or even his family ever since. This is a clear indication that the government fears his word and/or tries to blackmail him. On the other hand, the Kurdish movement regards Öcalan`s isolation as an open declaration of war.
A qualitatively new period in Turkey began on 20 July, when an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate carried out a suicide attack in Suruç, a Kurdish town in Turkey on the border with Kobanê, murdering 33 young socialists who were on their way to Kobanê to help the reconstruction of the war-torn city. What ensued was an intensification of the ongoing power struggles amidst the hegemonic crisis in Turkey, and the Turkish state escalated the low-intensity war it had been pursuing for a long time. After another minor incident between ISIS and the Turkish army near Kilis on the border with Syria, Turkey supposedly entered the war against ISIS. In practice, this meant a few aerial bombardments of ISIS positions in Syria, but only days after the Suruç massacre a massive wave of air strikes against positions of the Kurdistan Workers` Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. The latter have been continuing until today. At the same time, police raids were staged all over the country targeting “extremists” and “terrorists.” Though most certainly those raids weren`t targetting ISIS. According to the Human Rights Association (İHD) 2544 people were detained between 21 July and 28 August. Of these, only 136 were associated with ISIS, and 22 with the organization of Fethullah Gülen, while the rest were associated with the left or the Kurdish movement. Overall, 301 of those arrested were actually charged, and again only 33 of these were associated with ISIS, 4 with Gülen, and the rest with the left and the Kurdish movement.
Soon, the Turkish government convinced its NATO allies to support its “fight against terrorism.” The deal was clear: Turkey opened up the İncirlik airbase for the use of the US military and, reluctantly, became a part of the international coalition against ISIS, and in turn, gained the consent of the US to bomb PKK forces in Iraq. The Turkish media focused on the “threat of terrorism” embodied in the PKK, PYD, and YPG, rather than ISIS. Kurdish towns and forces were heavily and consistently bombed by the Turkish army, resulting in responses by the PKK and the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). Ultimately, Erdoğan and the AKP succeeded in diverting attention from the election results and coalition negotiations, and endeavored to impose the well-known (false) dichotomy of terrorism vs. anti-terrorism on Turkish society.
Paving the Way for Snap Elections
In other words, the AKP refused to accept electoral defeat and aimed for a new election. In order to have more success this time around, something of great importance had to change; Erdoğan urged for a renewed war with the PKK in order to gather nationalist votes and push the HDP below the ten percent threshold. Indeed, then-deputy PM Yalçın Akdoğan repeatedly and explicitly stated that the reason for the cessation of the peace process was the HDP’s ascent to parliament. However, this was only the first of the two-step new election strategy of the AKP and Erdoğan. The second step was to pretend that they were willing to form a coalition, but convince the public that there was no possible coalition partner. At the same time they were actually preparing for snap elections.
Putting this into practice was not very difficult for the AKP since the extreme nationalists, namely the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), rejected from the outset any involvement whatsoever in any possible coalition that included the pro-Kurdish HDP. Thus, the only remaining possible constellation was the coalition between the AKP and one of the three other parties, namely HDP, MHP, and CHP.
One of the most important commitments in HDP’s election campaign was not to form any coalition with the AKP, unless the latter was willing to change its repressive, anti-democratic policies. Obviously, the very way that things unfolded after the election rendered a coalition between the two parties impossible.
The MHP essentially adopted a policy of no coalition. Apparently, it is also planning to benefit from the rise of nationalism resulting from the war.
So, a coalition of AKP and CHP was the only remaining possibility. It is well known to the public that there were important figures favoring this coalition within the AKP, which has been also supported by domestic and international flows of capital to ensure political stability and profitability. However, Erdoğan and his supporters strictly opposed this view, and insisted on new elections, which are the only way of transitioning to the presidential system and furnishing Erdoğan with unprecedented power. In a speech on 12 August, Erdoğan stated that opposition to the presidential system is nothing but an opposition to the concept of Great Turkey in 2023 (the one hundredth anniversary of the Republic of Turkey). Two days later, he declared that Turkey’s government system has changed in practice, and there is a president who de facto rules the country. What is to be done, he continued, is to update the constitution and provide the legal framework corresponding to this situation.
In the meantime, the AKP and CHP delegations were pursuing coalition negotiations, which lasted for over a month, aimed at leading the public to believe that the two parties were eventually going to form a government. However, the leaders of both parties declared that no coalition was feasible after their last meeting on 13 August. The AKP’s aim, then, was to use up as much time as possible of the total 45 days legally granted for elected parties to form a government. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP leader, stated that the AKP did not even offer a proper coalition, but rather the formation of a short-term government that would take the country to a new election in the near future.
Intensification of War and the Rising Tide of Fascism
The stage is now set for snap elections, set to take place on 1 November. Erdoğan and the AKP are relying on the intensification of the war, which, it is calculated, could lead to the extension and enlargement of the state of emergency that would in turn make voting in the Kurdish parts of Turkey impossible. Therefore, the Turkish government has not held back from its efforts to reproduce and sharpen the terrorism vs. anti-terrorism dichotomy. Within the last weeks, indeed, the level of violence and confrontation has upsurged dramatically.
Most regions in the Kurdish east of Turkey (Cizre, Yüksekova, Şırnak, Varto, Silvan, Lice, Sur, Silopi, etc.) where the HDP got more than ninety percent of the votes in June have declared autonomy in the face of the war that the Turkish state began. They have instantly been severely attacked by the gendarmerie (military police) and police forces. Access to the internet has been blocked. GSM operators prevent calls in many regions. Even HDP members of parliament are not allowed to enter if cities are under siege. The Turkish mainstream media as usual surrendered to the pressure, and is turning a blind eye to the attacks and sieges. On the other hand, more than ninety alternative online news web pages were banned in August. The total prohibition of the flow of information is not without intention and aim. According to a recent report by the IHD in the thirty seven days between 21 July and 28 August, forty seven civilians were massacred by the Turkish state, forty five of them being from North Kurdistan. Towns are being bombed and burned down, civilian people are being shot in the head by snipers, and children are being killed without hesitation. The Turkish mainstream media meanwhile reports exclusively the death of soldiers and policemen.
The Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an association affiliated with the PKK, has repeatedly declared that guerilla forces are still being held out of the picture, and that the self-defense of the Kurdish people in the newly autonomous provinces is not organized by the guerilla forces itself, but by the militant youth of the YDG-H. KCK has pointed out, however, that they will not remain indifferent in the face of civilian massacres.
The PKK attacks that left seventeen soldiers dead in Dağlıca on 6 September and twelve police dead in Iğdır on 8 September must thus to be understood as responses to the Turkish state’s massacres against civilians and within the context of the escalating war. Nonetheless, President Erdoğan and the AKP media used those incidents to give the green light for attacks on the HDP. What followed, starting on the night of 6 September and escalating over the following nights, were fascist mobs marauding in the streets and attacking HDP offices. Nearly 300 HDP office buildings have been attacked and there were overall more than 400 attacks, many on civilians, Kurdish workers, and buses traveling to Kurdish cities. A young man was stabbed to death for speaking Kurdish, and many shops and restaurants with Kurdish owners were attacked as well. The attacks on HDP buildings appeared staged, as they were very organized and fierce, yet controlled. They took place all over Turkey at the same time and the demonstrators all shouted, “We don`t want military operations, we want massacres!” The central office of the HDP in Ankara was stormed, and while much of it was left relatively untouched, their whole archive was burnt.
At the same time, the town of Cizre was completely under siege. Water and electricity were almost completely cut off, and some 5,000 security forces were in the city, including snipers that opened fire on anyone out on the street. The siege was only broken after widespread protests and several HDP members of parliament, including co-chair Demirtaş and a minister of the transitional government, marched on foot to Cizre. They were not allowed into the city, but the large response caused by their protest forced the government to end the siege. There was basically no news coming out of Cizre during the time of the blockade, and it is only now that the truth about what happened is slowly emerging. What is sure so far is that over twenty civilian lost their lives and the city was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. Prime Minister Davutoğlu issued a statement that no civilian lives were lost, which is quite consistent with Turkish state politics regarding the Kurdish question. The lines of civilians and “terrorists” (i.e. armed militants) within the discourse of the Turkish state is blurry at best, despite most officials constantly pretending to draw a clear line. The statement is rendered absurd given that a thirty five day old baby, a ten year old, and a thirteen year old, as well as several people between seventy and eighty years old, have been among the dead. The family of ten year old Cemile had to keep her dead body in a freezer for several days, as no funerals were possible due to the permanent curfew and the snipers.
What is to come?
Peace is unlikely in the near future because there is no basis for a cease-fire for either the state or the PKK. The KCK has declared its conditions for a cease-fire, which are not overtly demanding (communication with Öcalan, end of bombardments of guerilla positions, release of all political prisoners convicted since the beginning of the negotiation process), yet the AKP will not concede them: their aim is war. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu have made that clear repeatedly. Erdoğan stated that this war will last forever, until the last drop of blood, and Davutoğlu keeps saying that all the mountains will be cleared of “terrorists.” In other words, while the PKK emphasizes that a ceasefire is possible if the negotiation process is continued properly, the Turkish state is absolutely determined to sustain the war. Moreover, it is quite possible that the election on 1 November will take place in a very biased environment. Erdoğan recently said that security forces will take every measure not to allow what happened in the June election to repeat. It is well known that there were neither any bias nor security problems in June, as confirmed by the Supreme Electoral Council. In a similar vein, Davutoğlu stated that military operations and measures might continue even on the day of the election if necessary. Last but not least, one of the most important motivations for sieging Kurdish cities and pursuing civilian massacres is to force people to migrate so that they will not be able to vote in the election. This becomes especially clear when one takes into account that the HDP got more than 90% of the votes in all Kurdish provinces that have subsequently been besieged.
Despite the obvious willingness of the government and Erdogan to “go to the end” and risk major chaos in order to stay in power, it is more than doubtful that this strategy will work. For one, the economy is in shambles, and the Turkish lira has been in free fall for some time. International and Turkish capital vehemently demand reforms, a clear indication that they are not happy with the way things are going. Latest developments have even sparked unexpectedly sharp responses from the US and the EU. The US had initially declared that Turkey has the right to defend itself when the bombing campaign on the PKK started, but added that they should focus more on ISIS. Now the US has also pointed out that human rights have to be respected. That is to say, the US does not want an open civil war. Also, consent within the military is not stable. Hardly a day passes without news from protests against the AKP at soldiers’ funerals. The people blame the AKP for the death of their family members and friends.
On the other hand, the Kurdish movement appears to be stronger than ever, in the military sense as well as in the broad support it enjoys among Kurdish populations. The PKK leadership has repeatedly declared that the guerilla forces have not yet started an offensive but are rather responding to the Turkish army. Taking into account the declarations of autonomy, they may very well be headed into the direction of a genuine revolution: an ultimate break with a state that is not willing to democratize itself in any way.