Turkey prepared for general elections in May after a devastating earthquake from which it had not fully recovered. The country then went through a long and exhausting electoral process, but one full of promise even though the main opposition's hopes were not realized. Despite all this, many progressive, revolutionary, and democratic opposition MPs were elected to the new Turkish parliament. In addition to the Cumhur Alliance—formed by Erdoğan, his fascist partner the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and small right-wing parties—and the Millet Alliance—led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and composed of other right-wing parties, representing the main capitalist opposition—a third electoral alliance, the Labor and Freedom Alliance, was formed by the left, the Kurdish national movement, and democratic forces. The Green Left Party (YSP) and the Workers' Party of Turkey (TİP) lists included left-wing socialist MPs. Two of them are Sevda Karaca and İskender Bayhan, MPs from the Labor Party (EMEP), which came from the working class struggle in Turkey and were elected from the YSP lists. I talked to Karaca and Bayhan about what kind of Turkey working people can expect after the elections.
Ekim Kılıç (EK): First of all, I congratulate you. Turkey held a two-round election in May. Erdoğan's loss was expected by many more than ever. Especially the appearance of an Alevi candidate against him created excitement in many sections of the society. But Erdoğan won again. Commentators in Turkey agree that although Erdoğan won, there was a decline in his support base, different extreme right-wing factions gained support, and there was a general decline in the votes for the left and the Kurdish movement. What is your assessment of these elections?
Sevda Karaca (SK): The winners and losers of this election are a multi-layered series of questions. First of all, it would be extremely misleading to read the elections as "a race between parties." Because both the Millet Alliance, representing the bourgeois opposition, and the Labor and Freedom Alliance, the real choice of the working classes, did not "compete" with an alliance of political parties in a race between equals. The Cumhur Alliance led by Erdoğan was an alliance of state-monopolistic companies-mafia-gang. It mobilized all the financial, administrative and military means of the state in their favor. President Erdoğan became a candidate even though it was against the law for him to run for the third time. Existing ministers had to resign from their offices in order to run, but they did not. Thus, the Presidential budget and ministerial budgets, which were already de facto unquestionable, were used for the election activities of the Cumhur Alliance.
I would like to give a very decisive example. In Turkey, especially in recent years, impoverishment has deepened. Real wages have been on a steady erosion. On the other hand, tens of millions of poor families are dependent on the social assistance they receive from the state under various headings. The Cumhur Alliance, which has the official records of the families receiving aid, circulated a threat that "If we lose, social aid will be cut." These threats were accompanied by propaganda such as "If we lose, the headscarf will be banned again" and "If we lose, the country will fall into the hands of terrorists.” The opposition was prevented from conducting election work in tent and container cities where earthquake victims still live; only officials, namely the Cumhur Alliance, could enter these places. The opposition could not find a place on state television. On election day, there is strong evidence of irregular voting that could have had an impact on the results. All this allows us to draw two conclusions. The first is that the government can only stay in power through irregularities, pressure, threats, and fraud. This is not a sustainable power. So in this sense, we can say that the Cumhur Alliance is politically weakened. Secondly, the opposition is not at an organizational level that can change the government against a party which became a state.
The opposition should not be considered homogenous here either. The Millet Alliance has made critical mistakes in recent years. From the very beginning, we defined the Alliance of Labor and Freedom as an alliance of struggle that is not limited to elections, but aims to change the system in favor of the working classes, oppressed peoples, women, LGBTI+ communities, and youth. In contrast, the Millet Alliance, representing the bourgeois opposition, proposed a capitalist restoration program under the name of a "strengthened parliamentary system." In doing so, it reduced politics to elections and democracy to voting. It organized an election-indexed "expectationism" in large sections of the people. It spread the illusion that everything would be solved by voting at the ballot box. It gave the message "Vote for us and we will take care of the rest." It limited democratic participation not to directness but to a layered method of liberal representation. This created an air of "expectation" among those already tired of the AKP rule, which they did not fill with their own struggles. When the election results did not turn out as desired, this expectationism led to the feeling of "I voted, nothing changes again." It was clear that the struggle against the fascism that the country was being dragged into could not be fought by keeping the people passive.
We, the Alliance of Labor and Freedom, have had to struggle against this inertia organized by the Cumhur Alliance on the one hand and the Millet Alliance on the other. This is a difficulty that can only be overcome through organization. Workers, women, and youth need to establish their own organizations of struggle and unite for their demands. It is very clear that the Kurdish people, who are one of the most organized groups in the country, have made a choice in favor of pushing back fascism and pushing back Erdoğan.
Another point that should not be overlooked when evaluating the election results is that the main body of the working class made a similar choice. In all the modern industrial cities, votes for the AKP and Erdoğan have significantly eroded. Despite all their disorganization, workers are in favor of a change of government. We, as the Labor Party, have concluded that our most urgent task is to carry out more effective organizing work among the working class, which is the main dynamic of regime change.
EK: President Biden called Erdoğan after the elections and congratulated him. "I spoke to Erdoğan. I congratulated Erdoğan. He still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden, so let's get that done. And so we'll be back in touch with one another," he said. Turkey has long been close to Russia. But it has had various tensions with the US over Syria and NATO. What would you like to say about the US approach to Turkey and the current government? How do you read Turkey's relationship with the US, especially in a very polarized world with the emergence of Russia and China?
SK: For quite some time now, the AKP and Erdoğan administration has been trying to conduct a "pendulum diplomacy," so to speak, between the US and Russia. This should not be read only in terms of international relations; this is the only way to consolidate its power in domestic politics. Turkey has been dependent on the US for more than half a century, its army is a NATO army. There is no development to the extent that we can say that this situation has changed. This dependence still continues. In other words, it is not possible to assume a "balance of power between equals" in the US-Turkey spat, no matter how much Erdoğan tries to portray it as such.
On the other hand, the economic growth of Chinese imperialism in recent years and the consequent market wars with the US, for a long time the sole hegemon of the world, in various parts of the globe, and Russia's military aggression in the Middle East and the Black Sea, which the US has turned into its regional backyard, create gaps that Erdoğan can only exploit for short times. These gaps sometimes narrow and sometimes widen depending on the momentary developments in the rivalry between imperialists. Erdoğan is not in a position to act independently in this utilitarian approach. There is Gulf capital that he has opened the lands of Turkey to plunder. He has to act in the interests of the monopoly capital groups in the Middle East, to which he promises to open up market space with his war policies. It is trying to find support for its foreign policy at home with the "fight against terrorism" concept and "Ottomanist" expansionist promises. The appointment of Hakan Fidan, the former head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), to the Foreign Ministry fits into this context. It is not a coincidence that Libya, Qatar, and Azerbaijan were the countries Erdoğan expressed his special thanks to after the elections.
In short, Erdoğan's room for maneuver in foreign policy is at the level of dependence on the imperialist poles. However, as long as the current balance of power in this polarization continues, it is still dependence on the US that is in the last instance decisive.
EK: Ms. Karaca, you have been through an intense election campaign. During your work, unlike many other candidates, we saw you in workers' neighborhoods, industrial zones, and public meetings. What are your experiences in this context during the election? What kind of an electoral campaign process did you go through?
SK: One of the many factors that I think influenced the election results is the election process. It was imperative to work intensively in a short period of time like a month with limited media and communication opportunities, and against a government that uses all the means of the state. I am a member of the general executive board of the Labor Party, one of the components of the Labor and Freedom Alliance. Our party is a revolutionary party of the working class. Everywhere we go during the election campaigns are places where our party has always worked outside the elections. In other words, working-class neighborhoods and industrial zones.
Gaziantep, where I was a parliamentary candidate, is a working-class city in the truest sense of the word. It has over two million inhabitants and three out of four of them are working families. Moreover, the poverty here is very deep. Roughly speaking, working poverty in Antep is actually at the level of the deep poverty we see in other developed industrial cities of the country. In one of the meetings we attended, a worker summarized the situation as follows: "The bosses are breaking export records, we are breaking poverty records." Antep's industry is based on the export of textiles (carpets, yarn, sacks) and food (pasta, flour, etc.). There is no heavy industry, but work accidents are frequent. At many workers' meetings, we met workers who had lost their fingers to machines. In return, the bosses own the hospitals they can go to. The system is set up in such a way that work accidents cannot be recorded.
In the overall picture, it is one of the cities with the highest rate of female unemployment. But this does not mean that women do not work. While men in the household work in formal employment as factory workers, women can find a place for themselves in informal employment. For example, they work in garment workshops for 1000 TL per week. Or the practice of home-based work is very common. They work 10-12 hours a day at home with children and the elderly and receive 20-30 TL for a sack of walnuts they crack. The work causes orthopedic health problems and this is not even recognized as an occupational disease due to it being from unregistered work. Most of them cannot benefit from health services.
After the earthquake, the situation is even worse. They can only go to private polyclinics opened like shops in the neighborhoods by borrowing money. Considering the average household population in Antep, this barely covers the bread money of the household. A terrible system of exploitation has been established. Children are also oppressed in this system of exploitation. It is estimated that there are two million child laborers in Turkey and 300,000 of them are in Antep. The workforce of the workshops in the neighborhoods are school-age children. Therefore, they are outside formal education.
The only way for the working class to break out of this capitalist blockade is through organized struggle. But here, as in many other parts of the country, they face the same obstacle: the yellow unions. The unionization rate is already very low. And in most of the places where there is, the yellow unions are in cahoots with the bosses. Workers face the threat of dismissal if they join a class struggle union. On the other hand, they have no other solution. In addition to the threats of the bosses, another obstacle to struggle is the division of workers into local and migrant workers, with artificial non-class distinctions. About one-fifth of Antep's population is made up of Syrian migrants. Immigrants are shown as the cause of rent increases, low wages, and all livelihood problems. The struggle for working-class internationalism is one of the main agendas ahead.
EK: The people of Turkey, especially working women and those in the women's struggle in general, know you from your work in the monthly journal Ekmek ve Gül. You were elected from a working-class city like Antep. But at the same time the competing candidates were almost all men. Now you are going as a representative to a parliament where there are far-right extremists from different groups. What challenges await you as an MP representing the women's struggle? What do you expect to do?
SK: The candidates on the lists of the Cumhur and Millet Alliances were not only men; they were also capitalists. For example, in the factory of a textile boss elected as an MP from the Cumhur Alliance, workers died during the pandemic because they were forced to work despite being diagnosed with COVID-19. Immediately after this person was elected as an MP, the case in the labor court was dismissed. This example alone summarizes the kind of system we live in. In another case in the city, a young woman named Ezgi Alya Yiğit was murdered by a relative of a former AKP MP who was released on the grounds of "lack of evidence." In short, laborers and women in the city have been blockaded by rich, influential men who have power at their backs. It is another irony that the former Minister of Justice was re-elected as an MP from this city. The fight against such violations of rights in Antep is one of the agendas of the coming period.
Across the country, parties openly calling for a sharia order have entered parliament. The Istanbul Convention, one of the most important pillars of women's struggle against violence, was canceled last term by a Presidential decree issued overnight. The Istanbul Convention has been targeted by sects and congregations many times, and every time the convention was targeted to be cancelled, the women's movement prevented it. However, with the Presidential Government System, which we refer to as One Man Rule, it was canceled by the decision of a single man. This struggle is still ongoing.
Now the national law on combating violence against women (Law No. 6284) is being targeted. Women in the Cumhur Alliance are also expressing their discomfort with this situation. However, the inclusion of the New Welfare Party and Hüda-Par, which want a sharia order, in the Cumhur Alliance is an indication that women's rights were sacrificed in the bargain between them. There are signals that these attacks will be extended to women's most basic civil rights, their right to work, and girls' right to education. The age of consent of children to sexuality and marriage is to be lowered. Mixed formal education, which is a universal norm, is being worked to segregate according to gender. Our struggle agenda is clear; we will show that we do not give up our lives and rights.
EK: In these elections, various far-right and reactionary forces, from the New Welfare Party to Hüda-Par, which has ties with Hezbollah in Turkey, and from Zafer Party to Sinan Oğan, made a name for themselves. What are the reasons behind their rise?
SK: Yes, many bourgeois ideologues have interpreted and are interpreting voter behavior as "the rise of nationalism and conservatism." I think we need to be very vigilant against these interpretations. What are the dynamics of this so-called rise? How does it manifest itself? What is the anatomy of this mass of "nationalist conservative voters"? If we do not examine all these questions in a multifaceted way, we will make a big mistake.
First of all, it is obvious that the rise of nationalism does not exhibit the character of a "movement." In other words, it is debatable whether it stands on an ideological ground. The nationalist movement in Turkey was historically organized and strengthened against communism. At this point, a racist-nationalist ground was also created. This is what happened before and after the 1980 military coup. The struggle of the working class and its unification with communism was tried to be strangled in this way. The so-called "rise" we are witnessing today is a reaction to socio-economic conditions. The working people are expressing their reactions against the problems produced by the system, such as poverty, inequality, and injustice, not on the basis of class struggle, but under the influence of non-working-class, bourgeois ideologies. This is not only the case in Turkey, but in many countries around the world; this is the underlying reason behind the strengthening of the right-wing political tendency, the inability of working people to react collectively against their common problems. For example, they see Syrians living together in the same neighborhood under the same conditions as the reason for a rent increase. Because there is extremely intense propaganda in this direction. This was revealed many times during our meetings in the laborers' houses and we heard many sentences like, "Actually, our problem is not with Syrians, it is with rents and livelihood."
And the abuse of religion is again used to oppress the working class. For example, in this country, during periods of minimum wage hikes, sermons are read in mosques saying, "He who does not live for less will never find more.” When workers demand an additional raise in the face of the rising cost of living due to inflation, the sects preach "Wage increases are haram." Workers are advised to "asceticism," just like in the process of the institutionalization of monotheistic religions, and the search for justice is left to the afterlife. However, this is not enough to eliminate the demand for justice itself due to the material conditions. Working people have to realize that their interests are not ummahist, nationalist, or sexist, but class interests.
EK: Lastly, you were elected from a place with a large Kurdish electorate, which was also hit by the February 6th earthquake. While the people's expectations for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question still persist, do you expect the attacks against the Kurdish people and their elected officials to increase from the newly formed government? What kind of a process do you expect for the Kurdish people?
SK: It is one of the main ruling tactics of the monopoly reactionary bourgeoisie; unorganized sections are divided by ideological weapons and organized sections are suppressed by force. The Kurdish people are an organized people with their own women's organizations, political parties, human rights organizations, and non-governmental organizations. In the face of decades of state coercion, they have created their own mechanisms of struggle and have the experience of expanding democratic spaces that have been narrowed. I think it is very wrong and dangerous to reduce the democratic struggle of the Kurds to mere voter behavior.
Unfortunately, not only the government but also opposition spokespersons are trying to do this. The One Man Rule, unable to bring the Kurds to their knees ideologically or through repressive apparatuses, has brought Hüda-Par, the political arm of the Hezbollah terrorist organization, dressed in the armor of conservatism, into play in Kurdish provinces during this election period. It seems that they will try to move the democratic ground and course of the Kurdish national struggle, which was built with thousands of efforts, to a ground that is backed by Islamism and fascism. They will not be able to achieve this without liquidating the democratic forces within the Kurdish movement, which have a strong foothold. This is the main reason why Selahattin Demirtaş and many Kurdish politicians are being held as political hostages despite the rulings of the Constitutional Court and the ECHR.
Local elections will take place next year. We can foresee that this hostile policy, which they have been advancing in the past years by appointing trustees to legitimate elected municipal administrations, will be strengthened and continued. They will try to place semi-paramilitary forces such as Hüda-Par in these areas, which they are trying to empty by liquidating the organized Kurdish struggle with the state's coercive apparatus. There is no need to be clairvoyant to foresee this; it is enough to look at past practices.
However, the Kurdish people have lived through many painful experiences and realized that a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish question is not possible with the AKP. We have seen this political will in the last elections. The solution lies in uniting around the forces of democracy in Turkey and the Kurdish provinces that defend the right of nations to self-determination without buts. If we look at it at the level of alliances, the Labor and Freedom Alliance is the address for this today. Only by expanding and strengthening these and similar alliances is it possible to roll back the fascism that is being built.
 Cumhur means “people” in Ottoman Turkish. Semantics play out in Turkish politics.
 Millet means “nation.” It is from Ottoman Turkish again.
 One Turkish Lira was around $0.05 during May 2023.
 Hüda-Par is an extension of Hizbullah in Turkey. Hizbullah is a semi-paramilitary organization and should not be confused with Hizbullah in Lebanon. They have been used in counter-insurgency operations against the Kurdish Liberation Movement.
 “Aza tamah etmeyen çoğu hiç bulamaz” is a Turkish proverb.