Crisis and Normalisation of the Military Oligarchy´s Regime in Turkey


Revolutionary movement challenged

After the bloody military coup d´à©tat of 1980 backed by NATO, Turkey gradually evolved as the most important stronghold of imperialism in the Middle East besides Israel. Since the establishment of the modern Turkish state the military has been playing the pivotal role within the political regime – a feature which Kemalism inherited from the Ottoman empire.

After the military had inflicted a historic defeat on the revolutionary movement and on the entire left and had been ruling with an iron fist for some years as on overt oligarchic military regime, they tried to gradually rebuild a democratic cover allowing for the establishment of political parties and the holding of elections. However, they never left the reins out of hands. Everybody knew that behind the faà§ade the omnipotent National Security Council (MGK) had the last word to say.

By the mid 80s the military regime was challenged by the emerging armed Kurdish liberation movement led by the PKK. While the once turbulent metropoles in the Western part of Anatolia had been largely pacified by brute force, the rebellion moved to the Kurdish people. Even the outright war waged by the Turkish army could not bring down the liberation movement. On the contrary for several years, the PKK could mobilise the support of the majority of the Kurdish population of Turkey.

The escalating conflict also granted fresh air to the Turkish left. Millions of Kurdish people were displaced and had to leave for the big cities like Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir swelling the slums called Gecekondu ("the house built in one night"). Many of the refugees produced by the army´s scorched earth policy belong to the Alevi sect, a heretic Islamic movement which had been engaged in several rebellions against the Ottoman sultans and is known for its oppositional and proto-socialist tradition.

In 1995 a popular uprising erupted in the Istanbul shanty town Gaziosmanpa…ºa predominately populated by newly arrived Alevis with wide repercussions in other Alevi neighbourhoods throughout the country. Forms of popular mass organisations were built. For several months heavy clashes with police forces had been taking place. Despite the considerable momentum of the rebellion it did not manage to expand beyond the boundaries of the Alevi community. Due to the combined factors of state repression and political isolation, it was doomed to fade out sooner or later.

After the military coup – while the overwhelming part of the historic left took a opportunist and legalist stance – only very few groups of the revolutionary left continued their struggle underground, first of all Devrimci Sol, the later Revolutionary People´s Liberation Front (DHKC). Although some armed actions against the military junta took place both in the towns as well as in the countryside, the movements had in general a very hard time. The revolt of the Alevi migrants helped the revolutionaries to reproduce themselves and to gain new ground. During a certain period they even enjoyed mass support in specific sectors.

But this tendency contrasted strongly with the general trend in Turkish society. While social unrest against the neo-liberal austerity erupted from time to time and the discontent against the puppet governments of the military oligarchy kept growing, this expressed itself in a growing Islamic sentiment. This is in line with the developments in the Middle East in general where the social and anti-imperialist aspirations assume Islamic forms.

Despite the widespread Turkish chauvinism, the Islamic trends and movements have a much softer approach to the Kurdish people. They rather tend towards Pan-Islamic conceptions where the Turkish-Kurdish contradiction loses its importance. Therefore especially in Kurdistan the Islamic parties used to score their best results as openly pro-Kurdish parties had been forbidden.

Since the early 90s the military regime regularly outlawed Islamic parties to keep them away from public offices. They nevertheless refrained from severe repression in order not to radicalise them. But none of the measures taken could impede their steady growth.

The defeat of the PKK

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global decline of the liberation movements also the "Kurdish Workers´ Party" (PKK) has been affected by the counter-revolutionary pressure. Within the PKK first signs occurred to soften their stance and to head for a negotiated settlement within the Turkish state renouncing the full right of national self-determination. This tendency fully emerged by the mid 90s. The leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, embarked on the project to turn at least a part of the EU against the US-Turkish axis. But he miserably failed. He got kidnapped and imprisoned with the tacit help of those powers he had asked for help.

From prison he led the final capitulation of the Kurdish liberation movement. But even that did not help. The Turkish state relentlessly carried on its campaign against the Kurdish people. No significant step has been taken so far to grant rights to the Kurdish people.

One could assume that the defeat of the Kurdish liberation struggle would have strengthened the Turkish regime – and in a certain sense it indeed did. Paradoxically enough the signs of a 1severe political crisis came to the forefront exactly when the protracted chauvinist campaign against the Kurdish people somewhat relaxed as a result of the end of the armed hostilities.

The AKP´s landslide victory

In 2002 the Islamic "Justice and Development Party" (AKP) won a landslide electoral victory while the traditional parties of the political system of the military regime did not even manage to pass the 10% threshold set by themselves to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament. Beside the AKP, only the "Republican People´s Party" (CHP), the direct heir of Kemal Atatürk, succeeded in winning parliamentary seats – maybe only because they did not pass the threshold in the 1999 elections and therefore were not held responsible for the regime´s policy during the last legislation term.

For the military oligarchy this was a crushing political defeat. It had lost any credibility among the people even though they had successfully smashed the Kurdish rebellion for national self-determination, a democratic aspiration largely refused by all social strata of Turkish society – within the Islamic milieu it is only gradually weaker, but still present. Actually as soon as the alleged "Kurdish threat" faded out, the reasons for the chauvinist unity ceased to exist. The deep popular dissent with the military oligarchy could eventually surface. This was due also to the crisis of Turkish capitalism which continues to manoeuvre close to financial collapse. The liberalist recipes imposed by the global financial institutions led to a general impoverishment of the popular masses.

There are supposed to have been forces within the army´s commanding ranks which advocated defending the generals´ political prerogatives by means of a new military coup, as has been common in Turkish history. However, the situation did not allow such a harsh measure. First of all there was no militant mass movement opposing the regime like in the 70s but a moderate bourgeois Islamic party channelling the dissent and the hopes of the broad popular masses. In no way did the AKP pose a real threat to the regime. On the contrary an AKP government was the only possibility to continue the liberalist socio-economic policy and the pro-imperialist role in the region and at the same time provide a popular cover for it. Neither the US nor the EU would have accepted a politically too costly and unnecessary military coup. Thus the army had no other choice than to accept the AKP stepping into office.

In fact the AKP executive opens up the question of a historic political reform of Turkey´s capitalist regime the current form of which was shaped by the 1980 junta and was fossilized by the war against the PKK. The deep political crisis revealed by the overwhelming electoral success of the AKP from without the traditional regime displays the incapacity of the military oligarchy to carry on in the usual tracks. But both the generals themselves as well as the regime parties originating form the Kemalist tradition have shown that they are completely unable to initiate the reforms necessary to safe the regime. The Turkish bourgeoisie, which is substantially servile to imperialism, is unable to exert a solid hegemony within the popular masses. Therefore it has to rely on the army as a Bonapartist arbiter.

What the AKP wants to operate could be called "normalisation". In essence it is all about cleaning the system from the features inherited by the military regime which were once necessary to suppress the left and the Kurdish liberation struggle. After the defeat of both of them to carry on in the same way would fail to establish a regime with the necessary political hegemony and would risk creating new instability and turmoil.

European Union membership

The question of EU membership is the catalyst for the reform programme. Basic strategic questions are involved, including the future architecture of Europe as well as the Middle East.

Although Turkey already applied for membership in 1987 it is in no way given that the EU will eventually accept the request. The stakes are high:

The US has given its full backing for Ankara´s application. After the recent accession of several Eastern European countries under their tutelage, the joining of Turkey would provide them an even more powerful foothold within the EU. With Turkey, one of the US´ most loyal allies in the world, inside the Union, one can rule out any possibility of the EU being able to escape the patronage of the US.

Meanwhile the EU powers are much more cautious. They already have a severe problem with the institutional framework of the community. It does not provide the necessary strength to the dominant powers yet concedes disproportional institutional weight to what is supposed to be the neo-colonial backyard of Europe. Rumania and Bulgaria as real Third World countries might, however, still be digestible.

Contrary to the weak Balkan states Turkey is powerful though also a Third World country. One has to bear in mind that it is supposed to overtake Germany as Europe´s most populated country in a few years. Sorted by manpower it has the strongest army and it is a key player in the Middle East.

Also from a social point of view the accession of Turkey would spoil the EU which was conceived as a community of imperialist societies with dominant middle classes. To grand 50 million poor Turks the same rights is from a bourgeois capitalist point of view not only a big danger but pure stupidity.

The Turkish request is of the same calibre as the one from Russia. Both are of utmost geo-strategic significance. From the point of view of the European core powers they must keep the reins in their own hands, granting the aspirants a status of associates at the most.

Turkey herself is deeply split over the matter. The EU has embarked on the line of democratic imperialism, of the guarantor of human rights. These so-called "European values" which Turkey is asked to comply with have so far served as a pretext to avoid her accession. The requested reforms include the crucial questions of some elementary autonomy rights to the Kurdish people, the end to the unilateral occupation of North Cyprus and the withdrawal of the army from the political front line. All this implies significant changes for example in the judiciary and a solution to the plight of thousands of political prisoners.

It is obvious that the general staff is highly sceptical about to the EU´s precondition as it does not want to renounce its historic role.

On the other hand there is a strong bloc composed of the liberal bourgeoisie, large parts of the middle classes and also important sectors of the popular masses supporting the reform project. Within some parts of the bourgeoisie there might also exist the idea to counterpoise something to the strangling tutelage of the US. Although there is a widespread aspiration to safeguard national sovereignty, the EU is nevertheless perceived as an instrument to set the generals under pressure, an operation which all other domestic forces proved to be too weak for so far. What remains of a moderate left also embarked on that line.

With these heterogeneous forces behind them, the current AKP government tries to softly and cautiously pressure the army to give in step by step.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan´s first success was with Cyprus. He completely outmanoeuvred the army and its historic henchmen on Cyprus, Rauf Denktas, who wanted to keep the status quo. While the majority of the Turkish speaking Cypriots expressed their support for a re-unification of the divided island under the auspices of the UNO, the Greek speaking Cypriots refused. At once the pattern established within international diplomacy according to which it is Turkey which must be held accountable for blocking a solution was turned upside down. Although eventually the re-unification did not take place, and this could be interpreted as a defeat, Erdogan did win a round against the Turkish army proving the consensus for his reforms.

On the field of the Kurdish rights the changes are the most sluggish. Already two years ago private language courses as well as private broadcasting was allowed. Yet in public Kurdish remains a non grata language. A campaign by students for Kurdish language courses on the university was ended by expelling them from the universities. Several repressive laws stay in vigour. Recently parents were officially banned from using the characters q, w and x in the names of their children – as these characters do not exist in the Turkish alphabet and thus indicate Kurdish origin. One can suppose that on this field also the reform forces will be most reluctant to implement the relaxation requested by the EU as the chauvinist anti-Kurdish consensus is still very strong.

Another minefield is the conflict over laicism. Historically the army regards itself as the guarantor of the secular system established by Atatürk. While at the time of the formation of the republic it served to smash the old ruling class linked to the Ottoman sultanate, today with the growing wave of popular Islamic sentiment it is increasingly becoming an instrument of exclusion of the popular masses and to amour-plate the military oligarchy. The fact that female students wearing the veil are banned from universities is only the tip of the iceberg.

The AKP knows well that they cannot precipitate into a relaxation of the restrictive anti-democratic laws without risking the reaction of the army. Only recently they passed legislation allowing graduates of the Islamic imam-hatip schools to pass onto the public universities. Although the secular forces protested, they could not stop the law from being implemented. Further cautious step are to be expected.

Referring to the issue of the political prisoners the AKP released several thousands of the once up to 15,000. Although the resistance of the revolutionary political prisoners continues the government gained some public respect for at least tackling the problem. However, it is also clear to the public opinion that the decisive steps are still to be taken. The persistence of the repressive character of the state apparatus and the judiciary is widely complained about – but the AKP is given a political advance on which they can feed themselves for some time.

Finally, one should not forget the tremendous effect of the parliamentary vote denying the US to launch their attack on Iraq from the Turkish border. This was maybe the move which won the AKP most reputation. The recent criticism of the Zionist massacre committed against the Palestinians is of the same propagandistic value.

Challenge to the revolutionary left

Although parts of the pro-system left reject the AKP on secularist grounds they are all unified in demanding the alleged democratic pressure of the EU. In the same way Abdullah Öcalan set all his expectations on the EU five years ago.

There are only very few revolutionary forces opposing the accession to the EU of which the strongest is the "Revolutionary People´s Liberation Front" (DHKC). They correctly argue that the intentions of the EU have nothing to do with a real democratic system and the defence of the social interests of the popular masses. The European imperialists are striving for a more stable regime in order to secure the exploitation of the popular classes on the one hand and to strengthen Turkey´s function as a bridgehead of imperialist interests in the Middle East on the other hand. Democratisation and social justice can only be achieved by the popular masses themselves struggling against the capitalist Turkish regime of any brand as well as against imperialism.

They argue that the AKP regime is a continuation of the old parties of the military oligarchy. In many respects this is true. The AKP is carrying on the ultra-liberalist recipes imposed by the US and their global institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Despite their Islamic rhetoric they continue and even strengthen their alliance with Israel and the US. And they keep repressing the revolutionary movements. This is why the military oligarchy accepted them in office.

In their legitimate and necessary strive to stress these continuities and to struggle against illusions about the Islamic government held by wide layers of the popular masses, the revolutionary forces tend to minimize or even deny the new elements and the changes brought about by the AKP taking office.

This is sharply expressed by the term "fascist" employed for the current regime. The usage of this term originates from the military coup d´à©tat by general Evren back in 1980. In order to denounce the extremely dictatorial and reactionary character in front of the masses in a bold way it was – despite a certain simplification –appropriate to use the term "fascist". Referring to the late 80s and the 90s when the junta gradually withdrew from the first line and handed the government over to civil forces to led them build a democratic faà§ade, the term fascist was used to denounce the imposture. Behind the scenes the generals kept the reins in their hands, and this was enshrined in the prerogatives of the omnipotent MGK. However, already at that point the notion fascist became analytically unclear and indistinct as it could not grasp the changes operated by the regime. An element scarcely mentioned by the Turkish revolutionary organisations but yet restoring to a certain extend the characterisation as fascist was the chauvinist anti-Kurdish mass base which the military oligarchy and their political henchmen could count on.

With the end of the PKK on one hand and the US´ "war on terror" on the other the established political system has worn out and led to an unprecedented isolation of the military oligarchy. In this situation the AKP has set out to rebuild the oligarchy´s lost political hegemony in a new form. But this necessitates a decisive turn, a credible break with the past. This is exactly the programme drafted by the EU which is in substance a fake democratisation which we tried to describe as normalisation.

Its task is to extort the implicit anti-imperialist potential from the Islamic movement and to tame it by integrating it into the system on the one hand and to completely isolate and smash the revolutionary movement on the other hand.

Historically the left movement suffers from the fact that it has been strongly concentrated on and limited to the Alevi sect. While the real figures of the demographic strength of the Alevi community is obscured by the political interests involved, one can assume without exaggerating that this heretical Islamic community amounts to at least 10% of the population, making a total of seven million. They provide a solid ground to the revolutionary forces and a steady source of its reproduction. On the other hand the Alevi background strongly shapes the cultural and political character of the movement creating a dangerous gap with the Sunni majority population.

With the Islamic revival this problem becomes crucial. While the Alevis remain largely secularist and leftist (with the minority phenomenon of an Alevi communalism) the Sunni protests against the oligarchy take Islamic forms incompatible with Alevitism. This problem can potentially dangerously isolate the revolutionary left from the Sunni popular masses if no countermeasures are taken.

One example of this problem is the reception of the ongoing struggle of the revolutionary political prisoners. During certain periods the democratic demands of the prisoners met with widespread support. However, the "death fast" campaign conducted by the DHKC and which already led to more than hundred martyrs, suffers from a very different perception in the Alevi and Sunni community respectively. That does not at all mean that the struggle is religiously animated or has religious goals. It is a political one highlighted also by the fact that about half of the death-fast martyrs originated from Sunni background. Nevertheless martyrdom is a constitutive conception within the Shiite tradition which the Alevis are a distant offspring of. Martyrdom testifies for the faith. Under the Ottoman empire this tradition several times assumed a revolutionary character and led to uprisings against the Sultans. Today martyrdom in order to testify for the revolutionary goal can be understood by the Alevi community. Yet for the Sunni it is alien even more so as they do not share the revolutionary goals.

Take as an example the apparition of the phenomenon of martyrdom attacks in Palestine and in Sunni Islamism which is very recent. It as been taken over from the Shiite world as a tool in the asymmetric war waged by imperialism. It is rightly widely accepted in the Arabic and Islamic world. In Turkey it seems the other way round. The means of martyrdom can be traced back to a domestic Alevi tradition but due to the reflux of the revolutionary movement and the pacification it is not being received widely within the popular masses.

On a more general level this tendency also expresses itself in the political conception behind the continued armed struggle: The semi-colonial character of Turkey leads to a permanently revolutionary situation. Therefore armed struggle is supposed to be permanently necessary regardless of the concrete political circumstances and the dynamics of the relationship of forces – a big and tragic theoretical and political mistake. (The conceptions obviously differ between the organisations. Thus this can only be a very schematic sketch.) Doubtlessly also here an element of revolutionary witnessing can be traced down which escapes political tactics, which are supposed to be carefully calibrated on the concrete political situation.

Armed struggle – also limited to propagandist action – seems inappropriate for contemporary Turkey maybe with the exception of Kurdistan. The "focist" conception according to which the armed struggle of the vanguard is necessary to awake the masses and push them to action is wrong. The vast popular masses do not enter the arena of struggle on request of the revolutionaries but as a result of pressing social and political factors. The revolutionaries can and must anticipate the crisis of the system, but they cannot bring it about in a voluntarist way. The popular mass movement suffered a historic defeat and pacified the situation. The oligarchy has embarked on the project to integrate the popular unrest by means of the AKP, that is to say a "soft" approach in comparison to the last quarter of the century. Different to the period of the revolutionary upsurge during the 70s as well as during the period of self-defence against the military dictatorship, today the lever to the masses is to open the gap between the popular demands which they hope will be implemented by the Islamic forces on one hand and their unwillingness and inability to fulfil them due to the latter´s bourgeois capitalist character. Their void promises can be exposed. Meanwhile armed struggle would presuppose that a significant part of the popular masses would support it and see it as the only means to defend their interest – which is apparently not the case.

What is absolutely indispensable is a concrete analysis not only to grasp the contradictory character of the Islamic revival and to use the bourgeois division between the pro-US and the pro-EU forces, but also to derive the political consequences from it, sketched out here. At all costs, the revolutionary left must avoid falling into the trap of neglecting these contradictions and of liquidating the phenomenon by calling the AKP government simply fascist and carrying on a frontal attack against it. On one hand it is true that it provides a fresh, not yet outworn face to the military oligarchy. On the other hand it is also true that one aspect within the Islamic aspirations expresses the political and social protest against the capitalist and pro-imperialist oligarchy. The hopes of the masses are directed towards the AKP which is completely unable to fulfil them. This is the lever the revolutionary forces must employ.

The revolutionaries can use the current political crisis and turn the democratic aspirations against the regime which tries to renew itself also by exploiting these aspirations. Beside the obvious insistence on social justice and against the ultra-liberalist policies, the revolutionaries can gain by continuing a) to expose the co-operation of the regime with Israel and the US which blatantly contradicts the Islamic rhetoric, b) to demand the Kurdish right to self-determination which remains a burning question and c) to demand the real implementation of the promised democratic reforms which include the right of the revolutionary forces to freely express and organise themselves but also of the Kurdish nationalist and the Islamic trends still oppressed by the regime of the military oligarchy.

Willi Langthaler
Vienna, June 2004