Hayri Kozanoğlu, professor of economics, writer for the daily newspaper Birgun, and former leader of the ODP party (Freedom and Solidarity Party), comments on the elections, the current economic crisis in Turkey, and the future of Erdogan’s new presidential system:
I believe that even undemocratic authoritarian regimes need institutions. If your institutions crumble, you cannot govern the country. In Turkey, all the institutions are crumbling; none of them are working. No one knows what the new ministries, new offices, or boards that will start operating beginning next week will be. No one knows what their responsibilities and powers are. The only center is Erdogan. There are no checks and balances. I believe that Erdogan himself does not know.
What is your analysis of the growing economic crisis? Did the first signs of the crisis affect people’s political choices in this election?
Actually, the developments in the economy so far were only reflected on the macro-economic level. The Turkish lira has depreciated against all other currencies by twenty-five percent since the beginning of 2018. Against Erdogan’s wishes, Turkey’s central bank increased the interest rate by five percent. Unemployment figures have been around ten percent. These numbers, however, are not reflected in the daily life of an average person because, for many years, unemployment has been approximately at the same level. The main foreign currency debt is owed by banks and corporations. The average person in Turkey cannot borrow in foreign currency and, as a result, the foreign currency debt does not affect their lives.
The second reason why we could not observe reverberations of the economic problems in these elections is because an average AKP supporter believes that the increase in the value of foreign currency and rising levels of interest are all games of foreign forces in order to vanquish Erdogan. Many of the AKP supporters decided that they would not allow these forces to defeat him. Once they start feeling the effects of the economic crisis in their life, probably, at least some of them will abandon the AKP-MHP alliance.
If the economic crisis worsens, how will that affect Erdogan’s policies? Will he try to tighten his political control?
If he cannot control the economy, he will try to polarize the society from different axes: ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc. As usual, he will try to create an artificial plot. However, if he is not be able to deliver bread and butter to the people, his plots will not be as effective, especially given the global environment. Since 2002 the general economic deterioration has not affected the average person’s life dramatically. But now, Turkey’s foreign debt is really high, 4,66 billion dollars. Foreign currency debt for non-financial corporations is around 322 million dollars. Reserves of the central bank have been declining. All the signs are bad. I do not think that Erdogan will be able to manage the situation; it will worsen. But now he has five years before the next election both for him and the parliament. Even though the authority of the parliament declines, there is still some legislation capacity.
What are the plans of the international financial community for Turkey?
The AKP has been blaming the rating agencies especially. They are being paid to give ratings to countries and to defend the interests of investors. Their agenda is not to ensure the growth of Turkey’s economy, income distribution, etc. They need to ensure Turkey’s economic capacity to guarantee the interests of foreign investors. When investment is risky, they downgrade ratings. Generally, it is not good for Turkey, as interest rates increase all over the world, especially in the United States, and borrowing becomes more difficult. Turkey is now among the riskiest countries in the entire world to invest in. This economic situation is not related to internal politics. I am not in favor of foreign capital, but from 2002 to 2017-8, we borrowed a lot and benefited from the so-called "hot money," that is, investment funds coming to stock exchanges and local money denominated bonds. They suddenly come to a country, but when the conditions deteriorate, they flee just as suddenly. We are observing these developments now, and it will become worse.
What are the perspectives for Turkey in terms of its relationship with the EU?
There are two reasons that, despite all the problems, this relationship has been favorable for Erdogan. First, when Europe and the AKP were first elected they were called the EU "anchor." Their main perspective was to gain full membership in the European Union. This plan created tension within the union as Britain supported this plan while Germany was against it. But since the erosion of democracy, human rights, and lack of tolerance to minorities in Turkey, the full membership is no longer possible. Europe is relieved now.
The second reason is the migration problem. Erdogan uses the threat of opening the gates, especially for Germany where migrants are a matter of controversy in internal politics. So he uses this threat, and they cannot finish their relationship with Turkey.
Did you expect the opposition to challenge the legitimacy of the elections?
As expected, some irregularities took place, but generally, my feeling is that fifty percent of voters indeed endorsed Erdogan. Maybe, the presidential elections could have gone to the second stage, but Erdogan would still have won. Let me share my personal observation when I participated in Ince’s rally in Istanbul on the day before the election. Probably, it was the largest crowd in Turkey’s political history. I observed the crowd: they were all people who look like us—secularists, socialists, people who generally vote for the CHP, some of them Alevis, as one can observe by their appearance, behavior, etc. To be able to win an election, you have to win the consent of others. I did not see others in the crowd.
Some commentators said that some AKP voters wanted to give message to Erdogan through the ballot boxes. Some of them planned not to vote for him in the first round, some—not even in the second. But they believed that in any case Erdogan would win. However, after Ince attracted huge crowds in Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul, they felt frightened and decide to vote for Erdogan after all. I do not know the percentage of these voters, but I believe this story and that somehow it affected the result.
Do you think that the support that the CHP was able to gain in this election will represent a continuous push towards liberal democracy in the future, continuing challenging Erdogan’s policies?
No one expected this from Ince. He lost twice against the CHP president Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Kılıçdaroğlu’s plan was to nominate the AKP’s ex-president Gul as the presidential candidate. His assumption—I believe it was a wrong assumption—was that in any case, the fifty percent of secularists, Kurds, Alevis, and CHP supporters would vote for the candidate who challenges Erdogan. If they nominated the AKP ex-president Gul, somehow this would attract some votes from the AKP base. However, since the leader of the Good Party, Meral Aksener, strongly challenged this plan, they could not nominate Gul: in a coalition, all parts of the opposition must agree on the candidate. Then Kılıçdaroğlu gave way to Ince who was able to send a message to the hearts and minds of average people. Since Bülent Ecevit, he is the first person to achieve this. While I criticize him ideologically, politically, and programmatically for certain reasons, he is a good speaker, and his background is suitable for challenging Erdogan. For example, the current leader Kılıçdaroğlu is of Kurdish origins, an Alevi, and his grandmother is of Armenian origin. It is unfortunately a disadvantage when it comes to gaining support from Sunni Muslims, especially in the Black Sea region and the heartland of Anatolia. Ince, in contrast, comes from a conservative Sunni Muslim background; his mother and sister wear veils. He is a local man from Yalova province on the coast of the Marmara Sea. He is not an elite: while he has a university education, it is not from an elitist university like Boğaziçi. He has some chance, I think.
What does Erdogan’s alliance with the MHP mean for his policies?
We are in uncharted waters: it is a new constitution, a new system. Normally the power of parliament would be limited; the MHP have some members in parliament. If antagonized, they may use this power against Erdogan. The other party, the Good Party, which was part of the Nation Alliance in this election together with the CHP, announced that the alliance is finished, which means they will try to have free hand from now on. Their main problem is with the MHP because they both attract the same base. Probably they want to be able to negotiate with the AKP to weaken the MHP.
One reason why the AKP built the alliance with MHP is to break away from the Gulenist side. The number of Fetullah members is limited, but they are the elites of the conservatives; they had many people in legislature, academia, media, bureaucracy, etc. After the break from them, the AKP does not have enough elites, experienced people, especially in bureaucracy. The MHP was in the coalition from 1999 to 2012 with the DSP [Democratic Left Party]. In 1970s, they were part of the nationalistic front. They have some experience with bureaucracy. This is the main reason for the AKP-MHP alliance. I believe that even undemocratic authoritarian regimes need institutions. If your institutions crumble, you cannot govern the country. In Turkey, all the institutions are crumbling; none of them are working. No one knows what the new ministries, new offices, or boards that will start operating beginning next week will be. No one knows what their responsibilities and powers are. The only center is Erdogan. There are no checks and balances. I believe that Erdogan himself does not know.
As the member of the ODP, could you share your party’s position on electoral politics?
To participate in the elections, you need to be able to organize in at least forty cities. Actually we planned to be able to enter the elections in June, but since they were announced in April, we could not finish the organizational preparations. For the presidential election, a party can nominate a person if they gather one hundred thousand signatures. Our comrades responsible for organization said that we would not be able to find enough signatures. While we could not participate in the elections, we urged our members to vote against Erdogan. There were different tactics. For example, I voted for the HDP in the parliamentary election and for Ince in the presidential.
In our party, we criticize the opposition programmatically. First, none of them defended secularism, none took a stance against the religious organization of the state, in administrations, schools, etc.; no one talked about secularism. The reason why the HDP did not do it is because they tried to address conservative voters, especially in Kurdish regions. As for the CHP, especially Ince himself, they also wanted to get votes from conservatives. Secondly, no one criticized imperialism, NATO, the European Union, etc. The CHP wanted to give an impression of a pro-Western party, which is in harmony with these foreign forces. The HDP did not criticize NATO, US bases, etc., because of Middle Eastern politics, especially the alliance with the United States in Syria. Third, none of them challenged the independence of central bank or addressed public finances. Nobody challenged the relationship between labor and capital, property relationships, etc.,—the base of the economic order—only wage inequality, income inequality, lack of social programs, etc. Only independent candidates of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) challenged that, but they seemed so orthodox and decided in the second round not to vote for any of the candidates. Thus, they could not convince average voters not to vote for any of the bourgeois candidates.
I believe if we were to participate in the elections—this is my personal opinion—the best policy would be to make an alliance with the HDP. When you make an alliance, you can propose your own different program, different policies; you will have your candidates, but the votes will be counted together. People would benefit from this alliance. I do not know the amount of tactical votes but at least three to four percent of the HDP votes are tactical, some from the CHP, some from socialists. Voting for the alliance, they vote for the ODP. Thus, we would have parliamentary representation. None of the other parties who have their candidates running with the HDP has the organizational capacity to participate on their own in the elections. Thus, the alliance is the solution for candidates to enter.
In a recent article in the daily newspaper Birgün, you discuss the presence of certain liberally-minded HDP parliamentarians as problematic. Could you explain your opinion?
I was talking about some of the candidates, for example, the HDP co-chair Sezai Temelli was deputy president of the ODP when I was its president. Our party divided, and almost half of supporters left the party. Temelli was among them. They defended the AKP in the 2010 referendum. He was at the forefront of “Yetmez ama evet” campaign, “Not enough but yes,” in English. Ideologically, they see Turkey’s main problem—they share the same ideology with some liberal forces—in the Kemalist foundation of Turkish Republic. Their main priority for them is challenging Kemalism through an alliance with all forces—this would bring democracy and respect for human rights. Thus, they voted together with the AKP in the referendum in 2010 and they have supported liberals generally.
Another HDP parliamentarian, Garo Paylan, an Armenian, is in the central committee of a Trotskyist party that is still pro-AKP [Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (DSIP)]. He is also one of the “Yetmez ama evet.” Many of this type of people are in the HDP.
Of course, we have political personalities; when we write a column, of course, we say things that we believe, but we should be mindful of our personal positions when we give a message to our base.
In terms of the Kurdish question, in your opinion, can the HDP present a solution?
First, our main approach to the Kurdish question, is “birlikte yaşama” in Turkish, that is, living together harmoniously, which means that their main demands related to language, culture, and local autonomy should be met. Yet, we prefer to keep living together because, so far, we have been living together for centuries. Secondly, it is not just the Kurdish identity; there are other minorities, like Alevis, for example. Our first priority, first identity should be our citizenship, our political position. We do not want people to organize along the lines of their ethnicity. If somebody asserts his or her first identity as an Alevi, we support this right democratically, but we do not encourage people to prioritize this. For me, my first identity is a socialist. Then I am in a struggle as a citizen. I do not identify myself by my family background which is actually Arab Alevi on one side.