Istanbul, Turkey. Watching Turkish TV and reading newspapers one can feel overwhelmed by what is going on in the country. In the end of July 2021, seven members of a Kurdish family were killed in Konya, central Turkey, by armed nationalist assailants who tried to burn their house in what rights activists said was a racist attack.
A couple of days later, over 270 wildfires started to burn 1,600 square kilometers of Turkey’s forest in its Mediterranean Region, the worst ever wildfire season in the country’s history. Later, due to heavy precipitation and floods during the whole second week of August, entire villages, roads and bridges in the Black Sea region were destroyed.
As if it is not enough, COVID-19 cases are rising again provoking fears of new necessary lockdowns in an already hard hit economy: in the last months, thousands of little shop owners were forced to close their business, unemployment rate reached 27.4% and the Turkish currency tumbled 17% from March to June 2021. In this deep economic crisis, racist resentments against Syrian and Afghan refugees are getting more and more violent.
But when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears on TV, everything seems to be under control: the wildfires were extinguished and those responsible have been caught; the government will compensate every single citizen hit by the damages caused by the fires and the floods and Erdoğan himself will negotiate with the Taliban to stop a new “invasion” by Afghan refugees.
But is everything really under control? We spoke to Hasan Durkal, former teacher and political activist. He was fired in 2017 after the attempted military coup in 2016 and the increased repression against political opposition. He is also a member of the central committee of Toplumsal Özgürlük Partisi (TÖP), the Party for Social Freedom.
Maurizio Coppola: Let’s start from the images on the news from the last few weeks: wildfires and heavy rainfall destroyed entire regions of the country. What exactly happened?
Hasan Durkal: In the last couple of weeks, disasters occurred one after another: Thousands of hectares of agricultural land and forests burned in the south of the country, thousands of animals died, flood disasters caused the death of a still unknown number of people in the Black Sea region, entire settlements disappeared.
Of course, these disasters are partly related to global climate change. But the reason why these disasters cause great social destruction is not natural. There is a massacre of nature spanning years, accompanied by neoliberal social policy spanning years. For years now, entire villages have been built in the middle of valleys where torrents fill rapidly as soon as there are heavy precipitations. Also hydroelectric plants have been built in many places and have put the region at risk by changing the natural flow of the water. In the recent disaster, an issue with one of those plants caused the majority of the harm. In addition, the dominant social policy dismantled public services and served only big construction corporations.
Neoliberalism has not only led to the destruction of natural areas, it has also eliminated public services, the main instrument to fight against such natural disasters. State institutions prove their incapacity to deal with floods and wildfires, but it’s not just a capacity issue. The state does not have any budget to intervene in such disasters and no interest – when people protest against some mega project, state forces jump in to protect private interests. After every disaster, Erdoğan goes on TV and declares an “aid campaign”. He asks people for money, but at the same time he repeats that “everything is under control”.
Honestly, nothing is under control. The Turkish government coalition composed by the two parties AKP and MHP on the political level, but also other ultranationalist, reactionary state factions no longer have the capacity to intervene in almost any problem in Turkey. In fact, a state crisis emerged after the military coup attempt in 2016. The opposed factions of the state formed an alliance to prevent this crisis. But their political natures are too different and they bicker with each other at every opportunity.
What does it have to do with fires and the floods? you might ask. The AKP and MHP coalition did not activate the firefighting planes belonging to the Turkish Aeronautical Association, just because it was an old Kemalist institution. Planes have been rotting in the hangar for years as the government coalition has not yet fully taken over that institution. Appointed a trustee, waiting to confiscate his property, the fire caught them off guard.
And the social costs are high.
MC: At the same time, Kurdish people are under nationalist attack, Erdoğan says that the PKK is responsible for the wildfires. What does this say about the current social and political situation?
HD: Many parts of the Mediterranean area burned at the same time: in Greece, Italy, Algeria – the PKK cannot have set fire to all these woods. Of course this is a conspiracy theory, but unfortunately there are too many conspiracy theories in Turkey. And they blow wind in the sails of fascist organizations and movements and strengthen them.
Erdoğan, who has suffered a great loss of legitimacy, is increasingly using lies and conspiracy theories to rule the country. The accusations against the Kurdish people are not new. The government uses the Kurdish question for any question he has no political answer.
In fact, the Kurdish problem has been a regime’s problem for 100 years in Turkey and it was never solved. We are witnessing a decline of the AKP and MHP coalition. As their legitimacy decreases, the attacks on the Kurdish people increase. On 17 June, nationalists attacked the Peoples’ Democratic Party HDP’s office in Izmir. The perpetrator of the attack was a paramilitary, a former medical officer who provided health care to Turkish soldiers and jihadist gangs in Syria directly linked to the state. At the moment of the attack, a meeting of 40 people should have been held in the office of the HDP, but they canceled it for other reasons. Thus, the planned attack could not reach its target. Nevertheless, party worker Denis Poyraz was killed.
A couple of weeks later, on July 31, a seven-person Kurdish family was murdered in Konya, in central Turkey. Again, it was a racist attack. And again, the state forces allowed this massacre. The family had requested police protection as they experienced racist discrimination in the past. But the police did not do their job.
The coalition is trying to stabilize the government by attacking the Kurdish people and lower classes, which is the only place where all dominant state factions find unity.
MD: Attacks on minorities are frequent, lately on refugees. Are racism and nationalism increasing in Turkey?
HD: Attacks on refugees have been increasing frequently in recent times, yes. The fascist structure of the state finds its base in a part of the society. I think the impact of the economic crisis has a great influence. Although the Turkish economy recovered after the 2008 crisis, it went into a major collapse after 2017. There are millions of unemployed [the leftist union DISK calculates an unemployment rate of around 27%, editor’s note]. Worse still, little tradesmen and shop owners are going bankrupt every day. When we add to this the small farmers who can no longer produce, this means that the petty bourgeoisie is in the middle of a huge impoverishment process.
A significant declassified population is being challenged by the economic crisis. This is one of the main reasons why hostility towards refugees is growing. The AKP party has been engaged on great adventures in the Middle East for years. Erdoğan bears an enormous responsibility in the destruction of Syria, he defends the interests of Turkish capital in Libya and uses Iraqi Kurdistan against the Kurdish people’s movement. Erdoğan entered Afghanistan with the same intentions and now he is increasing the Turkish presence there.
The result of these policies was the entry of millions of refugees into the country, which created a human drama. But it also constitutes the weak belly of the government. As discontent with the economic crisis grew, opposition leaders increased their racist rhetoric. For example, the CHP’s Bolu [a city in the north-west of Ankara, editor’s note] mayor made a decision that forced refugees to pay ten times more for water services than Turkish citizens. The deputies of the neofascist party IYIP, which split from the MHP in 2017 and now forms an important wing of the opposition, also increased their hate speech against refugees.
This led to a pogrom on August 11. In the Altındağ district of Ankara, a large group of nationalists looted the shops of Syrian refugees and stoned their homes. The police just followed the happening, without stopping it. By consequence, Syrian refugees had to leave their homes and the city.
Nationalists generate fake news on the topic. They use social media accounts with thousands of followers that spread refugee hatred. The AKP came under a burden that it was difficult to bear. In fact, the person who best summarizes the refugee policies was Erdoğan’s advisor, Yasin Aktay: He said that if we send refugees out of the country, our economy will collapse. This was a way to cheapen the labor force.
While the opposition increased their racist rhetoric and hate speech in recent weeks, it is highly likely that the mob that attacked refugees in Altındağ was composed mostly of MHP supporters. While the MHP and the AKP are in a coalition, they are not without differences. And it is entirely possible that the MHP wants to force the issue of refugees in order to weaken the AKP relative to itself.
MC: For a couple of weeks, Afghan refugees have been arriving in Turkey. Erdoğan promises to stop them and is building a high security wall of 295 km (183 miles) on the border with Iran to stop what he called an “invasion”. What is the “Afghan question” about for Erdoğan and for Turkey?
HD: We can call the Afghan question in Turkey a “Biden effect”. The AKP did not expect Biden’s election and they are now very slow to adapt themselves to the new situation. The Erdoğan-Trump relations were positive, they were able to negotiate relatively freely. Now, Biden is less flexible about AKP’s Middle East policies. Moreover, he did not seem very eager to work with Erdoğan. Erdoğan had to react. At the last NATO summit in Brussels in June 2021, he aspired to a difficult task: protecting the Kabul airport and being NATO’s outpost in Afghanistan. Probably, he promised that he would accept the migrants also resulting from Turkey’s role in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the Afghan refugee question is a way for Europe to put pressure on Erdoğan again. Europe could propose a new refugee’s deal as it did with the Syrian refugees in 2016: Turkey stops the refugees in the country in exchange for direct payments to the government, money the government needs.
But all this reduces internal support for Erdoğan. Despite these contradictions, he has no other choices.
MC: Economically, the pandemic deepened an already existing economic crisis. What happened in the last 18 month in Turkey?
HD: The pandemic intensified an already existing major economic collapse. In the last 20 to 25 years, the economic growth has been based on lending millions to working people, especially to the lower socioeconomic classes. They were included in the financial system and into consumer culture. People became homeowners, bought cars, started businesses thanks to loans and credits. With the deepening of the crisis, they fall into huge debt burdens as the state can no longer make it up by economic growth and redistribution.
Additionally, all public enterprises and resources were privatized, yet today, the state is left with almost no resources any more. Privatizations and liberalizations for capital were intensified in order to integrate Turkey further into the international financial and economic system of neoliberalism. The wheels of the Turkish economy turned thanks to the constant flow of foreign investments and to the rentier sectors of capital (construction, tourism). Such a system is very prone to instability and crisis. In a couple of years, the context has changed and this specific neoliberal accumulation regime failed, the debt crisis destroyed medium and small scale businesses and the Turkish lira lost massive value compared to the Euro and the Dollar.
Before the economic crisis, Erdoğan was able to reconcile different capital fractions by cheapening the workforce and plundering public resources, disbanding trade union organizations and abolishing worker’s rights.
The pandemic crisis intensified these developments, and these policies started to be insufficient. It was not possible any longer to satisfy the needs of the financial capital, the non-monopolistic bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie all at the same time. Erdoğan had to make a decision: if he chose financial capital, he would risk an ongoing social destruction; if he chose other sectors, it would have lost the financial support of finance capital.
He chose to support financial capital and carried out policies within the framework of the interests of large capital groups during the pandemic by rising interest rates. During the lockdowns, he carried out policies that looked after the interests of big markets; the pandemic has been very profitable for big capital.
In his rhetoric, he sometimes used arguments against high interest rates. This caused reactions from the markets. In the end, Erdoğan remains in line with the financial bourgeoisie, but the result of these policies are dire for the working class as already mentioned above.
MC: This multiple crisis has consequences on the ruling party AKP and on the legitimacy of president Erdoğan. Is Turkey facing a hegemonic crisis, too?
HD: Of course it is. Moreover, this is not just about Erdoğan and the AKP. A new social fabric was formed since the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The longing and search for a genuinely democratic, just, secular and ecological society is emerging. This social fabric is not represented by any political party in the current regime.
We have seen the existence of this social fabric during the wildfires: People did what the state didn’t. The people knit a great network of solidarity. They went to the fire zones, mobilized in order to put out the fire, started aid campaigns from below and undertook the rehabilitation of animals damaged in the fire.
Why am I saying all of this? Because a very large part of the country does not trust the institutions. For example, whether or not the perpetrator is caught when there is a rape or femicide depends on street mobilizations of women’s organizations. Confidence in the courts and the law is very low. Although the opposition focuses on the elections, there is a declining confidence in the electoral system.
All this together can be defined as a crisis of hegemony, yes. And it opens new opportunities for socialists to grow.
Maurizio Coppola is part of the European Secretariat of the International Peoples’ Assembly.