On Sunday, Turkey's electorate will vote in a referendum on a new draft constitution which, if implemented, would concentrate enormous powers in the hands of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In the wake of his civil war against the Kurds of Turkey, and emboldened by the defeat of the military coup last July, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is going for an open power grab. Because of rising instability, Erdoğan is no longer able to rule in the same way as when he first came to power, but must increasingly lean on the repressive power of the state to impose his rule.
The system which is being proposed in the referendum will turn Turkey's form of government from parliamentary into presidential. Major legislative and executive powers would be concentrated in the hands of the president, who would be given powers to rule by decree on major political issues. More importantly, Erdoğan would be able to establish and/or abolish ministries, appoint ministers and other senior officials, all of whom would be accountable to the president alone. The president would effectively also gain almost complete control over the judiciary, with exclusive selection prerogatives over 18 of its top 28 members.
The new constitution would represent the partial realisation of Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman revival, which the Anatolian based bourgeoisie behind him has always aspired to. Erdoğan has never tried to hide the fact that his own personal goal has always been to become a modern day Sultan.
It is ironic that Erdoğan, who came to power on a programme allegedly of expanding Turkish democracy and against the arbitrary and unsupervised rule of the Kemalist military and state bureaucracy, is trying to impose those same measures, only now they would be to his benefit.
Over the past few years, however, the ruling clique has been gradually chipping away at democratic rights, while concentrating increasing powers in the hands of Erdoğan himself.
The Gezi Park movement in 2013, involving hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied workers and youth, was the first mass opposition movement to Erdoğan and his imperialist and neo-Ottoman ambitions. That movement was defeated, but later found a political expression in the form of the Kurdish based leftist People's’ Democratic Party (HDP), which was swept into parliament in 2015 with a surprising 13.1 percent of the vote, receiving the support not only of the Kurds, but also of sections of the Turkish workers and the left. Realising the dangerous threat to his rule represented by a working class based party in parliament, Erdoğan embarked on a bloody civil war against the Kurdish movement and in effect, the Kurdish population. The main aim of that campaign is and was to cut through the rising class struggle and divide the working class along national lines.
In this bloody campaign, whole towns such as Silopi and Cizre have been practically razed to the ground, and never ending sieges have been imposed throughout the Kurdish areas in the South East. Thousands of people have been killed or injured, while hundreds of thousands have had their homes destroyed as punishment for voting for the “wrong” party. In November, Erdoğan arrested 29 of the HDP's 59 MPs. Fourteen of these, with the popular co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag as the most prominent ones, remain in prison on trumped up charges. The purpose of this, apart from adding to the Turkish nationalist and anti-Kurdish hysteria, was clearly to keep the most effective anti-Erdoğan agitators from participating in the campaign. According to the party itself, up to 3,000 organisers have been arrested.
Meanwhile, the crisis within the Turkish ruling class led to a failed coup attempt last July. The coup came just as dissatisfaction with the regime was on the rise, even within the usually firm AKP core ranks. But Erdoğan opportunistically and demagogically used the coup, which he probably had prior knowledge about, to reassert his position and carry out a massive purge of the state apparatus. More than 135,000 people, the majority of whom were teachers and other public sector workers, have been fired, while 40,000 people have been arrested. 5,000 university lecturers have also been dismissed. All of these presumably because they are regarded as followers of the neo-Islamist Fethullah Gulen, accused of being behind the coup attempt. Of course while Gulen's, liberal Islamist movement has been targeted, it is clear that the purge has been also, if not mainly, aimed at Kurds, trade union activists and others who would have otherwise been critical of the regime or stood in the way of its stooges.
The stagnating economy, the rising instability in the Middle East - to a large degree caused by Erdoğan’s actions - and the rising class struggle weakened the AK Party rule. Erdoğan can no longer rule via normal democratic channels as he used to and is increasingly forced to lean on the state apparatus to defend his position and that of the layers he represents. The draft constitution does not reflect a strong and stable regime, but a regime which is gradually losing its base in society. That is why Erdoğan is resorting to ever more authoritarian measures to shore up his position.
Following the coup, Erdoğan has also proceeded to jail at least 144 journalists, while seizing control of more than 150 media companies. All of this means that he now enjoys almost complete control over the media, while the few remaining “independent” media are under the constant threat of being seized if they do not tow the line. The result has been a huge difference in coverage of the different campaigns in the run up to the referendum. From 1st to 10th March alone, Erdoğan, campaigning for a "YES", was allocated 169 hours of the total 301.5 live hours on the major state-run and private TV channels. The CHP was allocated 45.5 hours, while the HDP, campaigning for a "NO", received no time at all. On the news, the AKP was allocated 136.5 hours while the HDP received 33 minutes!
In these conditions, there can be no talk of a democratic referendum. Erdoğan is the standard bearer of reaction inside Turkey as well as to a large degree in the wider Middle East. It is no surprise that a large part of the workers and youth of Turkey are determined to fight against any attempt to strengthen his rule.
Hue and Cry of the West
In the western media there has been no shortage of articles explaining their dismay at Erdoğan’s plans. The Economist carried an article with the title “Turkey is sliding into dictatorship”. It warns of the the dangers behind the new system and objects to the state of emergency which, it says, “demonstrates how cruelly power can be abused”. Nevertheless, the journal has to admit that when it comes to it, the western ruling class should “not give up on Turkey, but be patient.” It continues honestly admitting that, “Partly, this is self-interest. As a NATO member and a regional power, Turkey is too important to cut adrift.”
As The Economist’s cynical attitude shows, it is hard to take the moralising of western “democrats” seriously. In Europe, Turkey is being criticised for clamping down on democratic rights, meanwhile many EU countries themselves have banned mass gatherings of the Turkish and Kurdish communities in the run up to the referendum. While criticising the ongoing state of emergency in Turkey, they forget that a state of emergency has been in place in France for more than a year and it has just been extended to 15 July.
As long as the class interests of the western bourgeois are maintained, the lack of democracy in Turkey is not even an afterthought for them. One only has to go back to November 2015 when Angela Merkel went to Turkey to support Erdoğan in the elections, which were taking place at the same time as a bloody war was being carried out against the Kurds. This was then followed by the EU-Turkey deal on immigration, which effectively paid Erdoğan for preventing desperate Syrian refugees to escape to safety in Europe.
Inside Turkey the position of the liberal opposition is not more convincing. The main opposition party, the Kemalist, Republican People's Party (CHP), has not put forward any real opposition to Erdoğan at all.
The main line of the CHP in the referendum has been to reduce the question to a technical and legalistic matter. Of course the introduction of a presidential system has been the aim of every Turkish party when in power. Admitting this, the CHP has reduced its main argument against the new constitution to be technical and formal in content. These legalistic objections sound even more hollow when confronted with the fact that Erdoğan has in effect been ruling very much as described in the constitutional amendments for the whole of the past period, only with minor objections by the Kemalists.
Far from putting the plight of the working masses on the agenda, the CHP has de facto accepted Erdoğan’s political premise by solely competing with him on nationalistic matters. That is, insofar as the party has even mentioned political matters. While the CHP has steered leftwards several times in its history, its leadership has been acting as the voice of the Kemalist “secular” big bourgeoisie, as opposed to the Anatolian represented by Erdoğan’s party. Having seen the revolutionary movements of the 1970s, these ladies and gentlemen would rather work behind the scenes to make deals with Erdoğan, than risk setting off a mass movement which they cannot control.
The CHP has also completely ignored the civil war against the Kurds and the persecution of left-wing and Kurdish activists. Throughout the campaign against the HDP, the CHP has played a treacherous role of loyal opposition to the AK Party. In fact, insofar as they have brought up political issues, they have tried to avoid clashing with the AKP on major topics, such as the Kurdish question or Turkey’s imperialist intervention in Syria.
The party has not put forward any perspectives for the referendum and has in fact proudly proclaimed its loyalty by declaring that even if the "NO" vote wins the election, it would not call for early elections. “Why would there be any snap elections?” the party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said, “I would not find it right to go to snap elections at a time when Turkey has too many problems at hand.” The fact that Kılıçdaroğlu does not see the reason to launch an open struggle against the AK Party proves that, however much he might disagree with Erdoğan on how to carry out his policies, in the final analysis he serves the same class interests as Erdoğan.
A working class, revolutionary “NO”
The HDP and the leftist trade unions have correctly refused to join the CHP’s campaign. The HDP has been massively hampered by the crackdown on the party’s activities. Nevertheless, they have campaigned widely for a “NO” vote. Their campaign material correctly emphasises democracy, national equality and labour rights. The popular MP Surreya Onder said at a recent rally in Diyarbakir that a “NO” vote, inasmuch as it would be a blow to the regime, is a first step towards peace in the Kurdish areas. This is correct. A NO vote would be a blow to the AK Party and all their reactionary projects.
But however much Erdoğan really wants to change the constitution, the current one has not prevented him from doing what he wants to until now. The murderous campaigns at home and abroad and the many crimes he and his cronies carry out everyday are carried out under the present constitution. In the final analysis, the problem of democracy is not linked to whatever law is written down on paper, but which class rules society, and what its interests are. The dire conditions of the Turkish working class, the civil war on the Kurds, the imperialist war in Syria and the support for Islamic fundamentalists, in Turkey as well as abroad, were all there before the referendum and they will be there after as well.
The vote in itself will not resolve Erdoğan’s problems either. He is promoting himself as the guarantor of stability. But under capitalism in crisis, there can be no stability in Turkey. That is the reason why he has had to resort to so many conflicts and so much repression to carry through his programme. In the next period his rule will see a much deeper crisis. As the economy collapses, the present ebb of the movement will give way to a violent explosion of the class struggle.
The only way to effect real change is to prepare for a struggle against the Turkish capitalist class which is behind all the exploitation, nationalism and imperialism, that is, not merely to vote “NO”, but at the same time to prepare a movement of workers and youth across all nations within Turkey, to fight for the overthrow of all sections of the capitalist class and build a real democratic society, that is, a socialist society.