From hosting negotiations between Russia and Ukraine through to threatening to block Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO, few countries have played such an active role on the world stage throughout Russia's war on Ukraine as Turkey.
Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke with People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Foreign Affairs Commission co-spokesperson Hişyar Özsoy about Turkey’s growing international presence, the situation President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan faces at home, and how the country’s largest left-wing party is preparing for next June’s presidential and parliamentary elections.
Why do you believe Erdoğan has played such an active role in the current conflict in Ukraine? What impact has Putin's war had on Turkish politics? And could you outline the HDP's position on the war?
First of all, we strongly oppose this war. What Russia has done is unacceptable. We want Russia to immediately stop this aggression and withdraw from Ukrainian territory.
But we also see that this war is not simply a war between Russia and Ukraine; it is part of a broader and bigger war between Russia and the expansionism of NATO. It is a bigger power struggle, whose battlefield is Ukraine.
The Turkish government has made use of this opportunity to promote its own interests. Turkey has the second largest army within NATO and is the most important NATO power in the Black Sea region. That is why, with the war in Ukraine, Turkey’s geopolitical significance has increased.
Whether it is the deal to transport grains or Turkey's key position in NATO when it comes to vetoing the membership of other countries, all of this has provided Erdoğan with specific opportunities. Erdoğan wants to use these not only to convince his international partners to let him rule the country for another five years, but also as an opportunity to repress Kurdish people even more.
One of the main demands Turkey placed on Sweden and Finland was that they help Turkey in its “fight against terrorism”. But according to the Turkish state, almost any Kurdish demand falls within the scope of terrorism.
How do you view Turkey's role in the region? And what can you tell us about the recent attempts to seek a rapprochement with Syria?
Turkey has an expansionist agenda — many people call this neo-Ottomanism. Turkey claims to have to build its influence in the territories formerly known as the Ottoman Empire, such as Iraq and Syria. More recently, Turkey has pursued an aggressive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean towards Greece.
Turkey has been a crucial part of the war in Syria. If the Syrian state and society is almost totally dysfunctional today, it is because Turkey made a huge contribution to this whole process by supporting all kinds of groups against the Syrian government and directly involving itself in the war through its occupation of parts of Syria, in particular Kurdish-populated areas.
Erdoğan recently said he was open to meeting with [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. This was a kind of admission of the failure of his policy towards Syria. After 10 years of war, bloodshed and millions of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey, Erdoğan now wants to negotiate with Assad.
This is the result of two things. The first is that [Turkish] people are very tired of the war in Syria and of the refugees in Turkey. Erdoğan is trying to create the illusion that he may be able to resolve the issue by negotiating with Assad to find a way to send these refugees back.
The issue of Syrian refugees is a very important one for the coming elections because Turkish people are mostly very racist towards these refugees and want to see them all shipped back to Syria. But everyone knows that without some rapprochement with Assad this is not going to be possible.
The second, and equally important, reason is that Erdoğan wants to destroy the gains made by the Kurds in Syria. By attacking the Kurds with the help of Islamists groups and former elements of the Syrian army, Erdoğan has been partly successful in pushing the Kurds back a bit, but partly unsuccessful because the Kurds are still the second dominant force in Syria.
To further destroy Kurdish gains, it seems Erdoğan has been advised to build better relations with Assad. Both of them have a very anti-Kurdish policy, so rather than fighting with Assad, Erdoğan is entertaining the idea of working with Assad to attack the Kurds together.
What are the main issues facing Turkey in the lead up to the elections? Is a defeat for Erdogan possible given his tight reign over the country?
The biggest issue is the ongoing and deepening economic crisis that has seen the devaluation of the lira, high inflation, lowering living standards. People cannot pay the rent at the end of the month, they cannot pay their bills. Many people have lost their jobs and shops are closing down.
On top of all of this, the war in Ukraine has affected Turkey, as well as the war in Syria, which has been devastating for Turkey in various ways, so it is a very tough situation.
Erdoğan established a presidential system in 2017 and was elected president in 2018. If he wins another five years, the ruling coalition may be able to consolidate this highly authoritarian, anti-democratic regime. In this sense, it is a very important election — a radical turning point.
Objectively speaking, the conditions are extremely difficult for Erdoğan. Erdoğan cannot resolve these problems before the elections. These are big structural issues.
The opposition in Turkey is often over optimistic. Many people think that Erdoğan is already done, that he cannot win again. But you never know how many rabbits he has in his hat.
There are all kinds of things that could happen. Erdoğan may seek to create more chaos and instability and generate “security concerns”.
We could see an escalation with Greece that could turn into an open conflict. Or Erdoğan may seek to step up attacks on the Kurds in Syria.
Another factor is that the opposition is quite diverse and not united. The opposition has started to prepare itself for the elections, but, so far, they have not been able to provide people with genuine hope and excitement for political transformation.
They need to come together, produce a vision for political transition and come up with a good candidate. If they do that, we may have a chance to put an end to Erdoğan’s presidential system.
Of course, this is not going to resolve all our problems, but it may help restructure the political landscape within which we fight our struggles; it may help expand the political democratic landscape. I think that is the main goal of this election.
The HDP has formed the Labour and Freedom Alliance for the elections. How did this alliance come about? And how does it seek to relate to other opposition alliances?
Turkish politics is dominated by two major alliances: the alliance headed by Erdoğan and his allies — the People’s Alliance; and the Nation Alliance, led by the main opposition [the Republican People's Party, CHP].
But these two blocs are highly nationalist, highly populist and right-wing, despite the fact that the [CHP] claims to be a social democratic party. We cannot leave the whole country and the Kurds at the mercy of two equally nationalistic, populist alliances.
That is why the HDP is building alliances with Kurdish forces and Turkish progressive parties to bring together everyone who does not feel represented by the two main alliances.
Both alliances have about 40% of the national vote, but to win the presidential elections you need 50% +1 of the votes. Without the HDP, it is highly unlikely either side can win.
And if we get 15% of the votes, as the polls are showing, we will have about 90‒100 MPs in the next parliament. That would mean nobody could form a majority without the HDP. In terms of passing legislation, the HDP would become a kingmaker party.
To achieve this outcome, and increase our negotiating power, we need to get the biggest vote possible. That is why we are building the Labour and Freedom Alliance and positioning ourselves as the third alliance — and only progressive alliance — in national politics.
If we get about 15% of the vote, we are going to have a huge impact on so many political dynamics in Turkey.
We are not only going to put an end to Erdoğan’s presidential system but help transform the broader opposition along democratic lines. Even if they are nationalist or populist, we will negotiate with them; but without achieving some democratic agenda we will not support them.
We are not simply pursuing our own interests, we want to make sure that the new government will be different from the existing government. If we are simply going to replace the existing nationalistic status quo with another nationalist bloc, then what is the point?
That is why we are trying to expand our base, expand our alliances, to gather as much power as possible in the elections and use that power to pursue meaningful political transformation.