Thursday, 22 February 2018

Time to try something new: A turn to the left to get out of Turkey's impasse?

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By Halil Karaveli

February 22,  2018

Turkey is at an historical juncture: the need to try something new has acquired urgency. The right, in secular or Islamic shape, that has dominated Turkey throughout its history has demonstrated that it perpetuates authoritarian rule. Can the left provide a democratic hope? Ideally, a “Progressive front” would coalesce to challenge the ruling "Nationalist front" and the hold of authoritarianism. However, the war against the Kurds in Syria boosts the right-wing nationalist parties, and also the Turkish social democrats support it. To provide an exit out of Turkey’s impasse, the mainstream Turkish left needs to reinvent itself. It must emancipate from its father figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.



BACKGROUND: The military operation that Turkey has been conducting in Afrin in north-western Syria against the Kurdish militia since January 20 enjoys broad support among the Turkish public and across the political spectrum, with the obvious exception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). According to surveys, a vast majority – eighty five percent in one survey – supports the intervention. Among the voters of the two right-wing allies, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) support was reported to be close to one hundred percent. The leader of the officially social democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose party base also endorses the intervention, was quick to rally behind the military: “Our trust in our heroic army is complete, and so is our support for the operation,” he said the day that the operation was launched.

Kılıçdaroğlu needed to forestall any accusations of being insufficiently patriotic, if not treacherous. However, it is president and AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who stands to benefit from the extension of Turkey’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) into Syria. The Kurdish Syrian YPG militia, which has entrenched itself in northern Syria, is closely affiliated with the PKK, and it comes as no surprise as Ankara has moved to prevent the establishment of a PKK-controlled Kurdish mini-state across its border to Syria. Raison d’état and electoral preoccupations converge to sustain a militaristic dynamic: the restart in 2015 of the war with the PKK helped the AKP to regain the parliamentary majority that it had lost in the first general election earlier that year, (See August 20, 2015 Turkey Analyst) and surveys now indicate that the governing party is similarly benefiting from the war, rebounding after a period of declining support, which augurs well for President Erdoğan’s chances of securing his re-election in 2019.

Nationalism and religion have historically worked to sustain authoritarian rule in Turkey. During the Cold War, the rulers of Turkey mobilized both nationalism and religion to crush the democratic left. But the Islamic conservative AKP first made use of religion to explore a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question when it appealed to the religious bonds between Turks and Kurds. However, the Kurdish political movement was not going to be satisfied with anything less than some form of regional autonomy, and Erdoğan embraced nationalism and militarism.  Shocking as it may seem to those who mistook Erdoğan for a liberal, what has been called a “return to Kemalism” is in fact logical, in the sense that the Islamic conservatives are no less rooted in the authoritarian tradition of Turkey than their secular predecessors.

The outlook of the Turkish right has varied – it has come in both “secular” and “religious” shape – but its fundamental authoritarianism has remained constant. Turkish liberals and international well-wishers alike nonetheless always look in this ideological direction for a “savior.” They put stock in Erdoğan as a liberal hope; the names of former president Abdullah Gül, a fellow Islamic conservative, and the leader of the newly formed Good Party, Meral Akşener, a conservative of the secular variety, but also a hard-line nationalist, are now regularly evoked as potential democratic saviors. Yet given the conservatives’ historical record since the Cold War era to the present, there is little reason to expect that some new incarnation of the same old right will deliver democratization and societal peace. 

IMPLICATIONS: Turkey is at an historical juncture: the need to try something new has acquired urgency. Almost by definition, this new will have to emerge from the other, untested side of the political spectrum, the left. The left has been excluded from power, except for a few years in the 1970s, when it was overrun by the onslaught of the death squads of the far right and the military; democratic leftists and the far left alike have been the victims of state violence and oppression since the republic was founded, but the left has also been crippled by its own idiosyncrasies. These have prevented it from becoming a popular force. Except during the late 1960s and 1970s that saw a progressive-populist social democracy emerge, the popular masses have flocked to the conservative, be they secular or Islamic, parties. This is so because the mainstream Turkish left remains defined by the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder both of the republic and of the CHP, the nominally social democrat party.

“We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” is a favorite slogan among the party activists today; the secularist-nationalist Kemalism of the mainstream center-left has alienated the pious masses, who have been held to be “reactionaries,” and antagonized the Kurds. Furthermore, after the parenthesis of the 1970s, the social democrats have showed little if any interest in social and labor issues. One reason is that the CHP, like most other social democrat parties in Europe and elsewhere since the 1980s, has internalized the limits that have been imposed by neo-liberal capitalism. 

In January 2018, the Turkish government banned an announced strike by 130,000 workers in the country’s metal industries, stating that the strike threatened “vital national security interests.”  The strike ban conformed to the AKP’s pro-business profile, but neither did it elicit any reaction from the CHP that claims to be social democrat. A left-wing columnist in the daily Cumhuriyet found the contrast between the quietude of the mainstream left today and the pro-labor activism of middle class progressives in the 1970s striking. Since the 1980s, neo-liberalism and identity politics have combined to trump social issues and to detach middle class progressives from the working class; secularism, not social justice, mobilizes the former, while, conversely, religious conservatism has kept the latter pacified. Yet the aborted metal strike was nonetheless a sign that labor discontent is no longer as easily contained as it has been for the last three decades. And at the same time, some voices are for the first time since the 1970s being raised within the CHP for making a turn to the left.

When Turkey’s main opposition party held its 36th congress at the beginning of February, two leading social democrat CHP members of parliament, İlhan Cihaner and Selin Sayek Böke, caught attention with a manifesto that calls for the party to adopt “class based, distinctly leftist policies guided by social democratic principles.” The manifesto argues that the CHP should cease to adapt to neo-liberalism – which its authors point out, is sustained by Islamism – and instead aspire to “change the system”, something no mainstream leftist has suggested since the social democrat leader Bülent Ecevit did so in the 1970s. Cihaner argues that the secular-religious division of Turkish politics is artificial; he exhorts  the CHP to focus on the tension between the “one percent” and the rest, between “exploiters” and the “exploited” to win over voters from the right.

 It is reasonable to think that the popular masses that vote for conservative parties would be swayed with a leftist discourse about social justice, as they indeed were in the 1970s. However, the manifesto for a turn to the left falls short of delivering a coherent social democratic alternative as its authors remain beholden to the legacy of Atatürk. They entertain the fiction that “the universal principles of social democracy” can be reconciled with “the reforms of Atatürk.” “No one who excludes Mustafa Kemal can be involved in CHP politics,” remarks Cihaner.

Yet authoritarianism and nationalism – key features of Kemalism – and social democracy are not compatible; Turkish social democrats need to start by recognizing this. And there is also a contradiction between calling for a shift to the working class and demanding allegiance to the legacy of Atatürk, who although a radical, was no leftist. His regime actively promoted business interests, labor activism was banned and leftists were persecuted. It is one of the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish social democracy to overlook the class aspect of Atatürk’s policies. More importantly, “Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers” are not going to contribute to a democratic solution of the Kurdish question. 

CONCLUSIONS: The right, whether in secular or Islamic shape, which has dominated Turkey throughout its history, has demonstrated that it perpetuates authoritarian rule. Turkey needs to try something new, the left, but a left that has been reinvented. What would it take? For one, a class alliance, with middle class progressives “rediscovering” the working class and speaking for social justice, and an ethnic alliance: Turkish and Kurdish democratic leftists need to explore common ground.  Ideally, a “Progressive front” would coalesce to challenge the "Nationalist front" of the parties of the right, the AKP and MHP, and break the hold of authoritarianism. Ultimately, the mainstream Turkish left must emancipate from its father figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Paradoxically, the democratic-progressive challenge, to secure democracy in Turkey, calls for a very special leader with vision, courage and charisma to emerge. And such leaders appear rarely in history. 


Halil Karaveli is Editor of the Turkey Analyst and Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, who forms a Joint Center, affiliated with, respectively, The American Foreign Policy Council and the Institute for Security and Development Policy. His book, Why Turkey is Authoritarian: from Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press) will be published in June.

Picture credit: By  accessed on February 22, 2018 

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Joint Center Publications

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right", The New York Times, April 8, 2019

Analysis Halil Karaveli "The Myth of Erdogan's Power"Foreign Policy, August 29, 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell, A Road to Understanding in Syria? The U.S. and TurkeyThe American Interest, June 2018

Op-ed Halil Karaveli "Erdogan Wins Reelection"Foreign Affairs, June 25, 2018

Article Halil Karaveli "Will the Kurdish Question Secure Erdogan's Re-election?", Turkey Analyst, June 18, 2018

Research Article Svante E. Cornell "Erbakan, Kisakürek, and the Mainstreaming of Extremism in Turkey", Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, June 2018

Analysis Svante E. Cornell "The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?"The American Interest, February 1, 2018

Op-ed Svante E. Cornell "Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamic Poet", Breaking Defense, January 2, 2018

Research Article Halil Karaveli "Turkey's Authoritarian Legacy"Cairo Review of Global Affairs, January 2, 2018


The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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