Analyzing and understanding contemporary Turkey remains one of the toughest jobs for any international observer. Observers and analysts of international relations are used to complex situations—where one has to read between the lines with regards to what political figures say—but Turkey is an extreme case by any measure.
How should we gauge and evaluate the different political forces in this country? On one side you have the Republican People’s Party (CHP, by its Turkish initials), which has been the party of the Turkish establishment since the founding of modern Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War. The party is defined by its staunch support of secularism, oddly mixed with militarism, statism, and Turkish nationalism. The ideological mix has resulted in heavy oppression of Kurdish minorities, including denying their right to speak their language in public spheres.
Opposing this camp stands the new Justice and Progress Party (AKP), which is unique, and is the subject of numerous studies. The AKP comes from a line of Islamic parties that have repeatedly won elections, but have been suspended by the establishment for their alleged threat to secularism. While the leadership of AKP (especially the current President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul) all have a background in the same Islamic movement and recognize themselves as an “Islamic” party, they have successfully conducted good relations with the West, unlike the previous Islamic parties. It is a pro-EU, pro-NATO party, has a more moderate vision, and denies any closet designs for a more Islamic Turkey.
Recip Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s AKP Prime Minister, has successfully maintained cordial relations with the United States, and could even act as a possible mediator in Middle East peace talks. He has offered a vision of the AKP as the party of the “Average Turk.” He hasn’t given any concessions to the Kurdish cause and has thus been able to survive any attempts of a coup d’etat by the army. Even though there have been clashes—on Gul’s presidency and permission to wear a hijab in universities—and even threats by the army, Erdogan has been able to keep AKP in power by maintaining wider regional and western support than his rivals.
Who should we believe when analyzing Turkey’s politics? Should we believe that CHP is a party that promotes secularism that just happens to be less democratic, while AKP is a party that claims to be pro-Western and democratic, but is also leading a closet Islamist movement trying to undermine the secularist foundations of the country? Who should the West support? A pro-Western Islamic democrat AKP member marred by his unimpressive record with the poor and working class, or a nationalist, militarist, and ostensibly secularist CHP with a dark track record of oppressing working class struggles and the rights of Kurdish people?
CHP and AKP can happily agree on one thing: the labour laws that say nearly two million public sector workers can join unions but can’t go on strike. While these laws were put in place by CHP, Recip Tayyip Erdogan of AKP also made sure to warn against any strike.
But the events of last week proved that a strong voice against both parties does exist in Turkey. Thousands of public sector unions broke the law with a massive one-day walkout. Tens of thousands stopped their jobs to remind the country that, without them, there would be no transport, no hospitals, no postal service, and no schools.
Salim Uslu, the leader of the public sector union Hak-Is, called on the government to quickly change the law, which is a remnant of previous military governments that suppressed the workers movement in the 1960s and ’70s.
This begs a solution for the demagogic scene of Turkish politics. The forces of labour, leftists, and progressives have the right to organize within their own ranks. Only they can form a force, inclusive of workers from all regions, who can counter any attempt to dismantle secularism, and efforts to bring about Iran-style Islamic rule in Turkey. At the same time, they can oppose CHP nationalists for their oppression in the name of secularism. The right to self-determination for the Kurdish people should be recognized, and they should be offered the option to live in a inclusive, egalitarian Turkey which guarantees their basic rights, including the right to speak their mother tongue.