President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a historic defeat in Turkey’s local elections that even they could not spin as a victory.
Following the AKP’s loss of the three biggest economic centres of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, Erdoğan’s balcony speech sounded defeated and defensive.
How did this happen? What role was, and will be played by the country’s main leftist coalition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)?
The opposition and the government
As in previous elections, the AKP-MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) coalition government utilised electoral fraud, suppression and media manipulation, all enabled and legitimised by the undemocratic political norms of Turkey, to shore up as much of a win as it could.
In the case of Şırnak, a solidly Kurdish and pro-HDP province, the AKP somehow “triumphed” while surrounding provinces were won by the HDP.
The reason for this result lies with the mass displacement of civilians by urban warfare, and the bussing in of soldiers to vote for the AKP-MHP candidate.
With a government willing and able to go to such lengths to protect its hold on power, how did they lose at all?
Two factors lie behind this, the first objective and the second subjective.
The objective factor lies in Turkey’s deep economic crisis, which has already caused severe poverty and unemployment and is expected to last at least two years.
The neoliberal policies of the AKP and its capitalist-Islamist predecessors stretch back to the era of Turgut Özal in the 1980s. With so many of Turkey’s resources being bought and sold by multinational firms, a truly corrupt oligarchy has left Turkish people, particularly in major cities, literally starving.
In response to AKP rule, worker resistance has reached a new high point — from the resistance of airport workers, to the women workers of Flormar, and now to the Kale Kayış factory workers, whose struggle is still ongoing.
In one month, as many Turkish workers die in workplace incidents as in a year in Australia. Occasionally, self-immolations by workers demanding pay and justice light up social media, but these incidents are suppressed by the AKP-dominated mainstream media.
The March 8 International Women’s Day march was vilified as an affront to Islamic values and the marchers were falsely portrayed as attacking Islam, offending millions of women across Turkey.
Under such conditions, Turkish people are really and truly fed up with the AKP, and post-election street interviews reveal jaded former AKP voters who cannot wait to see the AKP go.
According to the rule of law, (which applies in Turkey only when there is a challenge to the status quo, never when the state wishes to enact fascistic violence), this sentiment must be expressed via the ballot box.
To avoid splitting the vote of “the opposition”, the HDP did not stand candidates in majority Turkish areas, running only in the Kurdish provinces where it is strongest.
Thus a kind of “anti-AKP” front was able to form, representing the people’s resentment. It was this resentment that won the day, not the appeal of the hodgepodge of values “represented” by the CHP (which vacillates between Turkish nationalism and social democracy).
The result was clear: despite the fraud and the banning of HDP election propaganda from television, the local elections delivered several key victories to the HDP in the Kurdish provinces, and the CHP-led coalition in the rest of the country.
Under more democratic conditions the result would have been a more resounding defeat for the AKP-MHP alliance.
Fear of association with “terrorism” prevented CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from even mentioning the name of the party that had most contributed to tipping the scales against the AKP-led government. However, the opposition came together to reclaim Istanbul as they last did at Gezi Park in May 2013.
Istanbul and Gezi
The loss of Istanbul is much worse for the AKP than the loss of Ankara. Istanbul’s huge population and the level of capital investment in the city make it an irreplaceable loss.
Turkey cannot be ruled from the rural provinces, but it could be ruled from Istanbul alone and the AKP-MHP coalition continues to contest the Istanbul result. The results in Istanbul were more favourable to the opposition this time, compared to the last general election, when accusations of fraud were leveled against the AKP. How could the opposition have stolen their most prized possession, Istanbul, from right under their noses?
The AKP’s one concern is protecting the ruling clique for as long as possible, rather than its believability. The AKP spent the run-up to the election cynically exploiting the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack. For years it used control of the mainstream media to declaim (with no objection from the state-backed clerics) that God is on its side and the opposition is part of a terrorist plot spanning from the nationalist CIA-backed cleric Fethullah Gülen to the Wahhabi jihadist group ISIS, to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The AKP knows that losing Istanbul means the beginning of the end. It means municipal government resources will be in the hands of an opposition that won its seat in power based on a broad popular front, an alliance between the more democratic elements of the CHP and the leftist and pro-Kurdish HDP.
To surrender Istanbul to the opposition means to admit defeat to the process that began at Gezi.
The opposition has created its own mythology from the heroic resistance at Gezi. CHP mayoral candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, was greeted after his victory by adoring voters celebrating his 2014 tweet: “We will build Istanbul’s biggest park. For Berkin, for our children.”
Berkin Elvan was a 15-year-old who was killed by police during the Gezi Park protests. Erdoğan cynically washed his hands of this act, declaring the boy a “terrorist”. He became an instant symbol of the AKP’s cruelty towards children, even outside of the war zone in the Kurdish provinces.
The era of hope that Gezi would find its reflection in the ballot box has come to a close, and a new period in Turkish politics has begun. Cities will become centres of opposition as never before. The media will become less unilateral. The opposition will become more united and resolute. The wave of change initiated by the historic March 31 elections will proceed in diverse ways. The HDP will play its role as the major popular left-wing force and leader of the democratic movement in Turkey.
The HDP’s difficult tasks
Herein lies the limitation of the local electoral victory: it was not an AKP mayor who killed Berkin Elvan or the other Gezi martyrs, but the state security forces.
The security of the Turkish state is still handled by appointed governors, who will hold back the anti-government movement, however possible, using whatever means they deem fit.
Their capacity remains to replace elected officials if they can be jailed on flimsy “terrorism” pretexts. The HDP won back 70 of 102 offices seized by AKP-appointed “trustees” under such pretexts. More would have been won, were it not for the stolen election in Şırnak.
The damage done since the previous local elections was significant and the finances of municipalities degenerated severely under the trustees.
In impoverished Kurdish provinces, the plunder of resources led to heavy debt and municipal buildings were "gifted" to state institutions. Newly elected HDP officials have the difficult task of repairing the trustees’ damage and constructing a genuine, popular, local democracy.
Erdoğan’s government will not sit idly by while Kurdish politicians set about this work. It will likely actively intervene with a new wave of repression against the Kurdish popular movement and try to castigate the HDP for its defeat. This will place the ever-skittish CHP in the position of having to choose between doing the right thing and avoiding association with Turkey’s favourite scapegoat — a test they have rarely passed before.
The HDP’s mission going forward is clear: not to wait years for the next general election, which may not even happen if the AKP does not allow the legal democratic process to continue.
The progressive forces that stand behind the HDP — the heroic Kurdish people, the socialist left, the feminists, the ecologists and the LGBTI movement — face a revival of the “Gezi spirit”. Whatever votes the HDP gathers for itself or for the broad opposition, it gathers in the name of these forces, which have proven by the result in Istanbul to be so powerful when united that they forced the AKP to back down, however temporarily, from its unbelievable claims.
The HDP’s task is now to put forward the most “unbelievable” claim of all: that the peoples of Turkey can unite, bring down a faltering dictator, and pose a real, popular democratic alternative. One that will answer all the questions about the future of Turkish society laid bare during Gezi.
[Alp Altınörs is a former deputy co-chair of the HDP, and with Muhsin Yorulmaz is a writer and translator with Abstrakt, a Marxist internet magazine.]