Savumlu: Welcome to our audience. Today we are joined by Foti Benlisoy of the Başlangıç Collective. In the wake of the elections, we are going to discuss the election results: what can Turkey expect next, what do the electoral tallies indicate, these are the topics on today’s agenda. Welcome, Foti Benlisoy. In advance of the elections, there were those who predicted a groundswell of opposition support, there were those who said that the election would result in the alteration of power. There were also those who said the opposite. Debates centered on the presence of the new IYI (or “Good”) party and on the alliance between the AKP and the MHP. There were numerous scenarios contemplated. Still, in the immediate run-up to the election, no one predicted the actual outcome. I would like to begin with a general question. You wrote just in advance of the 24 June elections a piece asking whether alternation of power through elections was possible. Was the election outcome a disappointment from your perspective?
Benlisoy: The optimism and positive outlook on the part of opposition supporters in advance of the election only arose in the week or ten days prior to the election, as a result in part of the energy created by the rallies convened by CHP presidential candidate Muharrem Ince. By contrast, when the snap elections were first called fifty-five days earlier, the expectations for the election at that time were very much in keeping with the outcome we have now witnessed. In the intervening period, a different set of hopes emerged but when considered realistically there is nothing surprising in the results of the election. The idea of an emerging groundswell captured the sense that it was not possible to predict accurately the results of the election; pollsters were reporting that people were unwilling to respond to their questions polls (if one in ten would answer pollster questions in the past, it was closer to one in eighty in the run-up to this election). As a result, there was an unpredictability about the election results. Those seeking to prognosticate used the groundswell idea to convey the thought that there might be a latent constituency willing to vote against the regime, if not to the degree necessary for an alteration of power then at least enough to destabilize its claimed mandate. This was one hypothesis that was raised. In the end, there was indeed a groundswell but it inured to the benefit of the MHP, defying expectations that the party would lose some of its vote share to the new IYI party. If we look at the bigger picture of MHP combined with IYI—treating the constituencies of the two parties as a divided nationalist voting base—we can see that the true groundswell was a tide of nationalism and chauvinism that between the two parties rose to the level of twenty percent of the vote share. That was not foreseen and is indeed unexpected.
While this was unexpected, it should not have been surprising. Why not? Since the November 2015 elections, we have been grappling in Turkey (and indeed globally) with a nationalist-chauvinist tide of security-oriented politics in which serious political investment in nationalism has been paying dividends. This groundswell of nationalism over the last two and a half years was somehow not treated as a meaningful driver of electoral outcomes that would influence voters in Turkey and clearly, that was mistaken. So in hindsight, there is a sense in which this outcome was the expected result of a years-long rising tide of nationalism. Of course, there are always going to be waves and currents; the waters are never entirely still. But an important point does need underscoring that cuts against talk of a groundswell: there was not very much slippage across lines between the two main blocks in Turkish politics today. These blocks, these neighborhood-identified formations, now constitute an entrenched division in Turkish politics. One block is the pro-Erdoğan, conservative, religious and nationalist-leaning neighborhood and the other is the anti-Erdoğan, more secular, if I say Western-oriented it’s problematic but a neighborhood identified with such a leaning. There has been no electoral flow of tides or currents to erode the polarization between these two “neighborhoods” Any current or groundswell is not carrying votes from one side to the other of a polarized landscape. Thus any groundswell is taking place within each block rather than in a way that would redistribute power between them. The MHP drew votes from the AKP; voters who wanted to punish the AKP but continue to support Erdoğan voted for the MHP. Particularly in central Anatolia, in the Seljuk geography, [the hinterland of Asia Minor is called “Seljuk geography” sometimes by conservative commentators as a reference to the Anatolian Seljuk state of the twelfth and thirteenth century] where there have been important levels of vote-shifting between the AKP and the MHP, which previously benefited the AKP but this time inured to the benefit of the MHP. And the same is true on the opposition side where we have seen different kinds of flows of voters from one party to another. For instance, some proportion of CHP voters—though it is not possible to say how much—may have switched their vote tactically to the HDP to ensure that party would secure a sufficient vote share to overcome the electoral threshold and secure seats in parliament. Similarly, some CHP voters in the Aegean and Mediterranean region may have switched their votes to the IYI party. The main point is that the shifting currents and groundswells are all contained within the two blocks and thus do not threaten the fundamental equation of polarization. As long as this polarization remains stable, then we can expect politics to continue along the same axes in Turkey, making alternation of power unlikely.
Savumlu: So what can change this equation, at least from the perspective of the opposition side?
Benlisoy: That is a difficult question to answer. We are analyzing events in retrospect of course, but we should not discount the hopes, the possibilities of opposition politics and change that were witnessed in the run-up to the election. Muharrem Ince’s candidacy did inject new energy and new hope into opposition politics, which was an important development. So we have seen evolution on the opposition side. But we should also not be fantasists. A 55-day election campaign and what it revealed in terms of capacity to mobilize and have big rallies should not be confused with a real strategy for change. It would be naïve to expect the election campaign period to suddenly dissolve the polarization I have described and upset the balance between these seemingly “durable” neighborhood block politics that make up the electoral spectrum. As an aside, I would like to note that Erdoğan’s greatest accomplishment is projecting this neighborhood politics to the national level and entrenching his polarized worldview. As reference points, I tend to use the neighborhoods of Fatih and Harbiye to capture this thought. [In his influential 1931 novel Fatih Harbiye, the conservative-nationalist novelist Peyami Safa describes the antagonism between two Istanbul neighborhoods—trendy Harbiye, which symbolized a Westernized lifestyle, and the old district of Fatih, which epitomized “traditional” Islamic ways. Turkish conservatism—in both its nationalistic and Islamic versions—has long pitted Westernized and traditional neighborhoods against each other in this way.] He transformed the abstract and imagined division between Fatih and Harbiye that he grew up with into a serious political reality. He built his own base into a “Fatih” identified block so to speak; giving them incentives both material and ideational to reinforce their identity and to keep them within the four corners of that defined block. And on the other hand to ensure that those outside of his own constituency are fully other-ized. He constructs those outside of his own neighborhood block as anti-nationalist, pro-terrorist and he is able to persuade his constituency of that framing so that even if they defect from the AKP to teach him a lesson they remain within the broader block he has defined, giving their protest vote to the MHP and still thereby voting to support his basic coalition. So long as this polarization proves durable we will continue to confront election results like those of this last election in June.
Savumlu: Economic indicators do not seem to have been a factor in destabilizing this portrait.
Benlisoy: It would have been difficult for economic factors to play an important role. Though we are face to face with an imminent economic crisis, the knife has not yet touched the bone. People do not feel directly the concrete impact of the economic crisis yet. Moreover, the world over when people begin to feel an economic crisis their first instinct is to seek stability. The theory is: Let us not change captains midstream as we are heading into stormy waters. It is critical to avoid the automatic expectation on the left that economic crises necessarily mean that people look for progressive or left-leaning solutions. They might look for change but as was apparent in the great depression in Europe that can inure as much to the benefit of right-wing parties—indeed, even to fascism—as to the left. As wages fall, unemployment rises and people are impoverished the notion that they will necessarily turn against the regime is false. For them to turn against the regime there needs to be preparation on the part of social movements and the opposition to present a compelling case of an alternative to the regime; to be prepared and to know how to channel grievances and give voice to those hurt by the crisis. Union organizing, class-oriented organizing has to be undertaken well in advance so that a clear alternative has been prepared. When those prerequisites of an alternative are not present, the crisis might cause those who are aggrieved to turn to the right as happened with the great capitalist crises in the depression of the 1920s and 30s. We cannot afford to forget that a crisis could just as much benefit the MHP, if the opposition is not able to mobilize its message effectively. The bottom line is not to succumb to automatically assuming that an economic crisis strengthens the left. Undoubtedly if there is a crisis that affects the legitimacy and stability of the capital formations underlying AKP and MHP ascendancy that presents an opportunity. But how we respond and give expression in social terms to the critique that ties the AKP and its base to the crisis will determine whether the crisis itself will destabilize their hold on power. I am not convinced that the opposition is prepared to respond adequately to the impending crisis; they seem at times to repeat the kinds of formulae that might be promoted by the IMF as a solution to the crisis. That would not meet the test of presenting an alternative on the left nor is it likely to be persuasive to those hurt by the crisis.
Savumlu: The left-socialist opposition now numbers about forty percent in Turkey, how do you analyze its potential?
Benlisoy: I am afraid that is a very optimistic account of the current situation. The CHP is a very particular kind of party. It does not come from the left socialist underpinnings of social democratic parties in Europe; it was not born of a working-class movement. Those European parties have seen quite an evolution away from their origins and have become far more right-leaning but nonetheless, they have a labor movement background and tradition totally absent in the Turkish case. The CHP which is more akin to the Democratic Party in the United States. That is, a party that may also accommodate leftists and socialists but is really an establishment centrist party at heart.
Savumlu: The forty percent figure is not mine; I am repeating how the opposition is described by others. Some CHP see themselves as left/socialist. The AKP vote share decreased by ten percent and in parliament, the party will depend on the MHP in a formal coalition for every decision. There are those who see this as good and others who see it as bad. Can the MHP dictate terms in every case under these conditions? How do you interpret that result?
Benlisoy: The glass is always both half full and half empty in these situations. On the half-full side of the equation, while Erdoğan was driving towards presidentialism, he is now further from one aspect of his one-man-rule objective. He is forced to confront a strengthened MHP as a coalition partner rather than the more dependent party he had grown accustomed to. If you listen closely to his post-election speech it was not quite as victorious as some of his earlier speeches; he was a bit more careful and hesitant in claiming a victory. This is because this is the first time that we see publicly both the erosion of support for the AKP and the degree that he now depends on MHP support. This may have been true at the 2017 referendum as well but it was not openly visible since it was a single up or down vote and it was not possible to differentiate the motivation of the supporters. Now we have a coalition that is of true partners in which the AKP is both tied to and dependent on the MHP. This can be appraised as a circumstance that weakens to some extent AKP rule. In terms of the glass half empty, of course, the MHP on which the AKP and RTE are now dependent is not a simple party. We know the MHP and its evolution well and from the moment the election results were announced they started to make extremely problematic demands: to bring back the death penalty and to extend the state of emergency, as two example. They also published a “thank you” ad in newspapers (which was subtitled “slander, accusation, imputation”) listing journalists by name and triumphantly denouncing them (and a number of academics). The message was that despite all their efforts they had failed to take the MHP down. Similarly, the discussions of a possible amnesty/pardon for Alaattin Çakıcı [an organized crime boss with ties to ultra-nationalists] also points to how troubling MHP behavior has been in the immediate aftermath of the election. All of these examples indicate that the MHP now understands itself to be the key party and plans to put pressure on the AKP to meet some of its demands. This pressure will, of course, be very deleterious in terms of Kurdish rights and democratic liberties. We were already facing a regime with a pronounced authoritarian streak and now, with the MHP able to exercise real pressure, the picture has darkened considerably. As for those who say this coalition will not last, they are speaking far too soon. The MHP understands that its own interests lie with making this partnership a success. When the former vice-chairman of the MHP made a public statement that because the AKP is now dependent on them it must do the MHP’s bidding, he was promptly removed. This is a clear indication that Bahçeli understands the importance of the MHP doing its part to make this partnership work. Both sides are aware of the mutual benefits they get from this coalition and are reciprocally acting to maintain those benefits. As a result, the half-empty glass reflects the emergence of a new nationalist front that—like the nationalist front in Turkey during the 1970s—is adverse to democratic rights, political freedoms, and social rights. When you add the impending economic crisis to this equation you will likely see real attacks on rights and liberties by this government. In a crisis, the government might need to use a large stick to govern by coercion; such coercive control has become an easier formula for an AKP locked in partnership with the MHP. It is also a more frightening prospect for the opposition and for ordinary citizens.
Savumlu: Let us discuss the HDP. People have been speaking of the party benefiting from “borrowed votes” by CHP electors designed to ensure the HDP crosses the electoral threshold; some speculate that there were few borrowed votes others say there was a lot of strategic voting. We also see that in the east the HDP suffered a loss of vote share while they saw an increase in the west. How do you analyze the party’s performance?
Benlisoy: The language of “borrowed votes” is problematic and understates the significance of the votes earned by the HDP in the west. Whatever votes they were able to get from the CHP or other parties are to be credited directly to the HDP and not minimized and treated as a borrowing. Let us not forget what the last six months were like and how the HDP has been criminalized and identified as a terrorist entity. We might lose sight of that context because those accusations diminished by a small modicum in the election cycle. Some from the CHP and even IYI and Saadet called for [Selahattin] Demirtaş [the detained leader of the HDP party] to be released. Despite the absence of a formal alliance between these parties (which ultimately may have been an advantage) these indicators of diminishing nationalist pandering on the opposition side were very positive in the run-up to the election. In the election itself, while we do not know the actual percentage, we do know that some votes shifted from the CHP to the HDP. Whatever the reason for the vote shifting, it is an important point in favor of the HDP. One of the principal goals of the HDP has been to avoid being cornered by the AKP’s nationalist discourse. Overcoming the criminalization and isolation that the party has been subjected to is vital and every small step in that direction is an important win for the party. As a result, the significance of the HDP’s electoral performance in the west should not be minimized. But what is critical for the HDP is to better understand why it is losing vote share in the east. There was a loss of electoral share in the November 2015 election in the eastern provinces and that erosion of support has continued again in 2018. Is this best understood as the result of the repressive authoritarian practices of the government? Are there other deeper causes: a disappointment or concern about the party? Those questions have to be grappled with and understood. Still, while the party should deal with the issues in its electoral base in the east, the whole framing of “borrowed” votes is really quite wrong and should be dropped when assessing its overall performance. From the outset, the HDP has been attempting to build a bridge. Thus it does not make sense to imagine that there is a tradeoff of votes gained in the west for those in the east; the whole platform has always been one of coalition building and furnishing a left platform for the peoples of Turkey. Every step in the direction of creating such an electoral coalition, by gaining votes in the west, should be considered another step towards realizing the long-term goals of the HDP. The HDP should take full credit for the votes it earned in the west and have an internal reckoning to better understand what accounts for its loss of vote share in the east.
Savumlu: There was recently a statement by Pervin Buldan (co-chair of the HDP) making public a call she received from Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu holding her party responsible for an alleged PKK killing in Ağrı Doğubeyazit. Soylu allegedly threatened her by saying “go wherever you like; we do not recognize your right to life”. [The claim is that the individual was a ballot box observer for the AKP, for which he was abducted and killed. Following the discovery of the corpse, Soylu stated publicly that he will turn that village upside down and that even the CHP could not save the HDP from his wrath. Soylu also gave a directive to prohibit CHP elected officials in eastern provinces from being allowed to attend the funerals of terror victims.] What does this tell us about the kind of government we can expect and what the HDP will face in the coming days?
Benlisoy: The HDP is going to continue to be under very serious pressure. The slight let-up in repression for the election will have been very short-lived. There are a number of reasons for my view. First, the AKP’s current approach is either to eliminate the Kurdish political movement or at least force it to surrender. And what the AKP has learned since June 2015 is that this is an approach that pays off electorally. The AKP made a choice between June and November 2015 to abandon the peace process and that choice has paid electoral dividends from their perspective so there is every reason to expect them to continue to double down. Secondly, in both Syria and within Turkey the AKP believes it has gained ground against the Kurdish movement, which enables it to withstand any pressure to change course. Lastly, while in coalition with the MHP the AKP does not have the room for maneuver to change course even if they wanted to because of their coalition partner’s sensitivities on the Kurdish issue. But the bottom line is that they do not want to change course so it is simply not on the agenda. Let us not forget there will be local elections in nine months and for those elections, the AKP will be once again foregrounding their coalition alliance with the MHP. We can expect a deepening of their anti-Kurdish position at least until then. They cannot risk losing Ankara or Istanbul by alienating the MHP base. Ultimately, there are three important factors driving the AKP’s approach: (1) actual gains; (2) the MHP alliance and (3) at the national level, you need to also take the IYI party into account in assessing the depth of support for ethnonationalism in the current political spectrum. Just as in the 1990s, there is a tidal wave of ethnonationalist support at play at levels not seen since 1999 (when the MHP secured seventeen percent of the vote). Taking all of this into account, we can expect not a turning point but a doubling down on ethnonationalist policies and a worsening of circumstances for the Kurdish community in Turkey. The fact of how aggressively Süleyman Soylu spoke about HDP accountability for “terror” is a clear indication of the current direction. Indeed, Soylu’s capital appears to have risen dramatically within the AKP and he has become a figure almost of equal political weight as Binali Yildirim. Soylu’s profile is really the identity of the AKP’s coming Kurdish policy, regrettably. Hard-line nationalist thuggery.
Savumlu: Despite all of this hard-line nationalist politics, what can the HDP do in parliament?
Benlisoy: The truth is that while the parliament is not just unimportant or mere theater, its powers are significantly diminished under the new political regime of the so-called presidential system. The HDP MPs can certainly make important contributions and make parliament a more dynamic venue and they may have some successes in this regard, but it’s important not to be deluded about the place of parliament in terms of political power. It has ceased to be the central arena for decision-making under our new political system. The world over we see a strongman politics coming to the fore and this is certainly the case in Turkey. The new system would have sidelined the parliament whatever its outcome. Whether with a president, a ruler or a prime minister, the strongman and his entourage now control the agenda in many countries, and this is especially pronounced in today’s post-referendum Turkey. Under these circumstances, the HDP MPs cannot do anything to shift the general balance of power between the branches. The AKP is dependent on the MHP, nationalist, and militarist politics are ascendant and the AKP sees itself as the beneficiary of pursuing this tactic. Moreover, the AKP is aware of a nationalist wave and in light of these factors any effort of the HDP to shift away from the nationalist-security paradigm is unlikely to succeed in the short-term, especially through parliament.
Savumlu: Is there any hopeful outcome of this election?
Benlisoy: However gradual we are witnessing a weakening of support for the AKP and an erosion of its base. That is the most hopeful outcome. The AKP project is beginning to recede within its own block. The constituency will not shift its votes to another block (not even to Saadet on the other side) but nonetheless, it is shifting away from the AKP and Erdoğan very gradually and slowly. So far this can only be seen in a vote shift in favor of the MHP. This shift avoids destabilizing Erdoğan’s control while still enabling voters to register their displeasure. The AKP can no longer say that it represents over 50% of the population (though Erdoğan personally can say he has broader support). Erdoğan wants his rule to be seen as legitimate; a form of constitutional one-man-rule. But he is having increasing difficulty stabilizing his majoritarian base.
For the opposition to have a chance to destabilize the increasingly durable form of Erdoğan’s electoral authoritarianism, it will have to develop a new path or site for political and social antagonism. It should address new forms of political antagonism that go beyond the “kulturkampf” of those neighborhoods that I referred to earlier. What Erdoğan accomplished in the AKP was a cross-class coalition of the owners of capital and the workers around his own charismatic leadership. The CHP and the opposition can’t counter this simply by telling the AKP base to come over to our side. That is not attractive to AKP voters. What is needed is a different formula that can rearrange loyalties. Erdoğan did it on this neighborhood identitarian division and created polarized blocks (Fatih-Harbiye). You cannot ask Fatih to come to Harbiye, you have to create a new neighborhood that can be home to both. You need to appeal to people in a way that resonates with their class and social situation—as workers, as urban or rural poor. Only in this way will the opposition be able to destabilize these identity blocks. Abstract appeals for democracy or rule of law without clear class content are not attractive to anyone and we saw that it is impossible to trigger an erosion in the social base of Erdoğanism with such a policy. In a classical idiom, I mean we need a new classist political opposition that goes beyond the existing anti-Erdoğanism that lacks class content. Something that can accelerate the existing erosion of AKP support and also capture the potential for shifting positions in an economic crisis by offering an alternative positive class-based coalition vision. Ask people to all migrate from their existing neighborhoods to a different alternative shared one. The world over we need to move from an identity politics to a social class politics. If the opposition—of course, there are many oppositions, but especially I mean the left-socialist tendency of the opposition—could put forward a policy that is based on a new class polarization, then the erosion of support for the AKP could be turned into something constructive.