Mobilise the impoverished masses on the basis of their genuine class interests: Interview with two members of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP)

We publish the interview of Nihat Halepli and Ecehan Balta, members of Internationalist Standpoint and the Workers’ Party of Turkey, in the Greek website R-project (you can read it in Greek here). R-project is an anticapitalist website associated mainly with Internationalist Workers Left (DEA). Nihat Halepli and Ecehan Balta would like to emphasize that the following interview reflects their personal opinions and does not necessarily represent the views of the party.

First of all, we would like you to introduce TIP. A brief history of its evolution, its politics and ideas, and its organizational strength and function. Also, the landscape of the party, if there is a left-wing and a moderate wing, internal currents etc.

The inception of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) can be traced back to a split within the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) in 2014, stemming from internal disagreements. This division led to the formation of the People’s Communist Party of Turkey (HTKP), which later adopted the name TİP, thereby resolving the dispute over TKP’s name. In 2017, TİP declared its aspiration to evolve into a mass party, drawing inspiration from the earlier Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) that wielded substantial influence over the Turkish working class during the 1960s. The party also expressed its willingness to collaborate with other leftist individuals and groups. It’s noteworthy, however, that the party only allows individuals to join, not groups or organizations.

Initially, TİP faced challenges in gaining significant traction. Nonetheless, in the 2018 parliamentary elections, it secured two MP seats through the lists of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Subsequently, two additional MPs –one from HDP and another from the Republican People’s Party (CHP, Kemalist)– joined TİP, bringing the total number of party deputies to four. In recent elections, TİP achieved a significant milestone by being part of the Labor and Freedom Alliance, which surpassed the seven percent electoral threshold (reaching 10.58 percent). TİP garnered 1.7 percent of the vote (1 million votes), marking the highest percentage among self-identified socialist parties in Turkey over the last 50 years – a remarkable accomplishment that led to the election of four MPs. However, TİP acknowledges that it is still in the early stages of its journey toward becoming a class-oriented party, recognizing the challenges and demands of this path.

At its inception, TİP counted only a few hundred individuals as members. Yet, as its parliamentary representatives gained media visibility, the party began to attract more attention. By May 2022, its membership rapidly increased to around 8,000. With the impending critical elections and increased media coverage, the party’s visibility and attention grew even faster, resulting in a current membership of approximately 45,000 to 50,000 – a remarkable increase of 30,000 members in just the past six months. This rapid growth, termed “inflation,” underscores a clear misalignment between the party’s expansion and its structural capacity. Unless the party swiftly reorganizes itself, the risk of failing to effectively translate existing potential into a vibrant socialist mass party is imminent.

While the party’s central cadres encompass members from diverse ideological backgrounds, former HTKP members predominantly hold decisive positions within the party. It’s crucial to note that the present top and mid-level cadres were appointed when the party’s membership comprised only five percent of its current size. Consequently, there are significant shortcomings in the party’s institutional functioning. Addressing this requires initiating a process of open discussion. Following the elections, the party leadership announced plans for a congress scheduled for November, along with a series of preliminary discussion meetings.

In the upcoming period, the impact of internal discussions within the party and the party leadership’s navigation of these debates will become apparent. This will offer a clearer insight into the various tendencies within the party and related matters.

TİP characterizes itself as a socialist party, advocating for socialism and even a socialist revolution. However, the party’s program lacks a clear connection between minimum demands and a comprehensive socialist agenda. It’s important to reiterate that when the party adopted its current program and statutes, its membership constituted only 5 percent of its current size.

The majority of TİP’s new members are urban, secular individuals who generally leaned toward voting for the CHP (Republican People’s Party). However, they perceive CHP as not being sufficiently left. While most party members come from major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, individuals from all parts of the country seek to join. In the last elections, according to the party leadership, 30 percent of the party’s voters were newcomers, particularly from the lower strata of the working class, who had not previously supported a left-wing party. This marks a significant development. To harness this momentum effectively, the party must rapidly evolve into a well-structured entity with internal democracy.

In the last election, TiP joined, along with other Turkish far-left groups, the Labor and Freedom Alliance. Was this Alliance formed simply for the purpose of electoral efficiency or there is more to it? What is your view of its main component, HDP, and other forces that joined? 

When the Labor and Freedom Alliance was formed, all existing parties emphasized that its scope extended beyond elections. The alliance comprises HDP/YSP, which participated under the name Yeşil Sol Parti (YSP) due to a legal case against HDP, and five smaller parties/groups. This alliance signifies a notable step forward toward a united socialist front in Turkey. However, discussions on whether HDP/YSP and TİP should contest the elections together or separately (both options are permitted by the complicated electoral law) were mismanaged, causing distrust and tension among the bases of both parties. Despite this, it is imperative for the alliance to continue with a unified approach, and the member parties must uphold their responsibilities to this end.

HDP/YSP, as the largest party in the alliance, holds a pivotal role in Turkey. Although it primarily attracts Kurdish voters, HDP/YSP is a “reformist” leftist party that draws mainly from the Kurdish working class and impoverished peasantry, even though it lacks a socialist program. While aiming to be a party for all of Turkey, HDP/YSP is often easily associated with the PKK (and thus terrorism), hindering its reach among the working class in Turkish-majority provinces. Despite certain structural weaknesses, HDP/YSP plays a crucial role in advocating for the demands and democratic rights of the Kurdish people.

Consequently, the development of TİP, as the second largest party in the alliance, carries significant weight in this context. TİP is the only party with the potential to transform into a mass socialist party. Although part of the Labor and Freedom Alliance, TİP decided to run independently in the elections.

From our perspective, it was a mistake that the Labor and Freedom Alliance (including TİP) didn’t field their own presidential candidate and instead endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu from the first round. Regardless, representatives from different socialist parties, both within HDP/YSP and TİP, currently are elected in the parliament. There exists an objective potential of forming a second parliamentary group consisting of these socialists, distinct from the HDP parliamentary group. Such a group could become a voice for a united socialist struggle. Regrettably, this idea is presently not under discussion.

The repressive nature of the Erdoganist regime and its tight control over the state are a common place in most analyses. This can partly explain its electoral victories (as it’s sometimes said, the elections are “free but not fair”). But can you tell us more about its social base of support? What is its class character? What motivates people to support Erdogan?

In recent elections, despite the extraordinary circumstances favoring Erdogan’s victory, the AKP experienced a vote share decrease of approximately 7%, yet still managed to secure a substantial 35% of the vote.

Multiple factors explain the support of millions of economically disadvantaged individuals for the AKP. Firstly, during its early years in governance, the AKP oversaw relative improvements in living conditions, thanks to sustained economic growth and the creation of job opportunities. Additionally, while implementing neoliberal policies favored by big capital, AKP introduced social policies that surpassed the efforts of previous governments. The establishment of the General Health Insurance scheme in 2005, for instance, provided healthcare access for all citizens. AKP’s social policies extended to unemployment pensions, benefits, and addressing the longstanding issue of retirement age. Measures like the Family Support Program, which distributed substantial funds to households, played a role in improving the lives of sections of the economically disadvantaged.

While the AKP’s election-oriented monetary policies contributed to the rising cost of living, the implementation of aid programs and income policies helped mitigate the situation. Poverty, while not eradicated, was managed to some extent. Additionally, many voters lack confidence in the opposition parties’ ability to manage the economy in favor of the poor.

AKP’s direct aid initiatives, often carried out by its municipalities, have found resonance among the impoverished. The National Household Visits Program, treating social assistance as donation rather than a right, has nevertheless garnered support. These efforts have contributed to the AKP’s ability to secure votes from this demographic.

Furthermore, AKP has cultivated an Islamist conservative-nationalist ideology, centered around the cult of personality of Erdogan, over two decades. This ideological alignment is a significant factor behind its political success.

Nationalism holds a pivotal role in Turkish elections. Both the People’s Alliance (led by AKP) and the Nation Alliance (led by CHP) include nationalist parties. Factors such as the Labor and Freedom Alliance’s support for CHP’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the first round have influenced nationalist voters to shift towards the AKP.

Two prominent fault lines in Turkey are the divisions between Islamism and secularism, as well as the Kurdish-Turkish divide. The working class can be categorized into four main orientations: Islamist-conservative, secular-Alevi, nationalist/patriotic, and Kurdish.

The Islamist-conservative segment supports the AKP due to factors such as the Turkish-Islamic synthesis ideology and historical repression. The secularist, nationalist, and Alevi sections lean toward the CHP, driven by concerns over AKP’s Sunni-Islamic ideology and perceived rights infringements. Turkish nationalism often aligns with the ultra-nationalist MHP, while a significant portion of Kurds supports the HDP. However, the AKP also gains Kurdish support due to its Sunni-Islamic conservatism and stance on the Kurdish issue.

To break free from this dualistic system, transcending these divisions is vital. This can be achieved by mobilizing the impoverished masses based on genuine class interests, as seen in instances of class struggle like strikes and factory occupations, where the working class can unite most effectively.

Erdogan is criticized by orthodox neoliberals for his economic policy. Of course being “heterodox” doesn’t mean being anti-capitalist, or even pro-worker. What are the economics of Erdoganism? 

The economics of Erdoganism have encompassed substantial neoliberal policies, characterized by privatizations and a tax policy that favors the wealthy while burdening the poor.

While the regime claims its economic policies are “heterodox,” they essentially adopt an eclectic approach. A consistent theme with Erdogan is his belief that “interest is the cause, and inflation is the result.” While other capitalist countries have raised interest rates to combat inflation, Erdogan has maintained low rates, citing Islamic principles against interest. He depleted the Central Bank’s reserves to stabilize the exchange rate, contributing to inflation exceeding 80% according to official figures (currently around 40% due to the base effect). The Central Bank’s net reserves plummeted to approximately minus $60 billion.

The recent appointment of a new Minister of Treasury and Finance, previously dismissed by Erdogan, signals a shift toward more “rational” economic policies, partially approved by Erdogan. Despite a 6.5 percentage point interest rate increase, the Turkish Lira continues to depreciate. Erdogan seeks to raise funds, particularly from Gulf countries.

One primary rationale for maintaining low interest rates is Erdogan’s emphasis on fostering “growth” and controlling unemployment. These rates, coupled with incentives, help sustain employment, although often in precarious jobs that lack legal qualifications. Pre-pandemic employment levels were quickly restored, yet they remain relatively low. It is worth noting that the minimum wage has been raised 45 times during AKP’s rule, effectively lowering other wages to its level. About 60% of workers earn the minimum wage, adjusted biannually to match inflation. However, despite recent wage increases, workers still experienced a 10% reduction in real wages before the new salaries were implemented.

Have there been workers struggles for wages, on the backdrop of the rampant inflation? What is the state of the labor movement in general? Of course feel free to mention any other social movement that is active and provides the radical Left the opportunity to build its forces and promote its vision for society.

Despite sporadic historical upsurges and radicalizations within the labor movement, many potential struggles are stifled before gaining momentum. This is due to pro-government unions established during the AKP era, union bureaucracy, and strike bans. The low unionization rate, standing at around 14%, further highlights the labor movement’s overall weakness. The Council of Ministers postponed nine strike decisions affecting 235 workplaces and 169,705 workers between 2015 and 2019. These figures shed a light on the extent of these bans.

Occasional small-scale struggles do occur, primarily among precarious workers, focusing on wage demands, job security, and the right to unionize. These struggles take place in various regions across the country.

On a broader scale, social movements in Turkey experienced a period of inactivity based on the expectation that the Erdogan regime would be voted out. This anticipation was linked to potential advancements for trade unions, women’s rights, and the LGBTIQ+ movement. However, these hopes were dashed as the AKP intensified its crackdown on the LGBTIQ+ movement post-elections, leading to flash mobs organized during Pride Week in response. The women’s movement also witnessed a loss of momentum in the post-pandemic period, with this decline seemingly ongoing. These setbacks follow recent defeats, while the ruling regime continues its strategies to maintain control.

What is your analysis on the latest stage of constant tension in the Greco-Turkish competition (roughly since 2010) and what are the tasks of the Left in each side of the Aegean?

Nation-states often bolster their existence by fostering enmity towards perceived enemies. The Turkish-Greek rivalry is a deeply ingrained phenomenon fueled by historical consciousness, and it has been perpetuated through both fictional animosities and concrete issues such as Cyprus and territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, these challenges are not inherent problems but rather concerns of those in power. A united and free Cyprus, as well as the underground preservation of fossil fuels in the Eastern Mediterranean, are in the best interest of the people living in the region.

From the standpoint of the Left, the tasks differ on each side of the Aegean but share common threads. Both Greek and Turkish leftists need to emphasize cooperation, solidarity, and shared interests in the face of the divisive narratives promoted by mainstream nationalist discourse.

A notable example of cooperation is the “Kazma Birak / Don’t Dig / Μας σκάβουν τον λάκκο” campaign, opposing fossil fuel extraction in the Eastern Mediterranean. This initiative has united more than 70 ecological organizations from Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece, showcasing the power of grassroots opposition in fostering collaboration and understanding. Such examples of solidarity should be replicated and expanded to address a range of common concerns.

Any estimates about the course of events in the immediate future, after Erdogan’s victory? In any of the fields we talked about (economy, class struggles, foreign policy, Greco-Turkish competition etc).

It is premature to definitively predict the future in the current circumstances. The regime’s immediate focus appears directed at securing victory in the forthcoming local elections, especially in pivotal cities such as Istanbul. To achieve this, the regime is expected to persist with its strategy of employing electoral economics and populist tactics. The outcomes of the March elections will likely shed more light on the regime’s trajectory. However, the repressive and Islamist conservative policies implemented by the regime are poised to continue.

The regime has recently undergone a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle. Although some adjustments in economic policies might seem apparent, particularly concerning interest rates, it is crucial to recognize that these adjustments do not signify a complete reversal. The interest rate hike has fallen short of general expectations, indicating that the issue of inflation is likely to persist. It’s plausible that Erdogan will maintain that his stance on interest rates was the correct one.

Erdogan’s appointment of the head of intelligence, referred to as his “black box,” as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, signals his intent to consolidate influence over foreign policy in the time ahead. The possibility of military operations against Syria looms, with an ongoing intensified offensive targeting Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria. This offensive encompasses actions such as assassinations and drone strikes against leaders of the Kurdish movement.

The bourgeois opposition front currently appears to be grappling with a sense of defeat. Within the CHP, the right-wing has initiated a campaign against Kılıçdaroğlu. The fragmentation within the bourgeois alliance raises the prospects of Erdogan securing another victory in the upcoming March elections, potentially clinching major cities like Istanbul and Ankara.

In light of these circumstances, the working class and social opposition should brace for a renewed and possibly more severe wave of repression. Stringent measures are likely to be implemented to navigate the economic crisis, possibly resulting in wage suppression and heightened hardships for marginalized groups.

In navigating the challenges of this period, the pivotal factor for the struggle ahead will be whether the left opposition can learn the lessons from this recent setback and effectively forge a unified left front.

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