The Rise and Rise of the Turkish Right

Since March 31, the defeat in Turkey of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party, the A.K.P., and its ultranationalist electoral partner Nationalist Movement Party, the M.H.P., in municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul and several others cities has led to premature commentary that Turkey is on the verge of change.

By wresting control of mayoral positions in Ankara and Istanbul, which were held by Mr. Erdogan’s party for 25 years, the opposition coalition has shown that Mr. Erdogan is not invincible.

But it is no victory for liberal values. The opposition coalition of the Republican People’s Party, the C.H.P., and its electoral partner, the Good Party — an offshoot of Mr. Erdogan’s ultranationalist partner — is simply another version of the right-wing nationalism of the ruling coalition of the A.K.P. and the M.H.P.

The C.H.P., which is officially a social democratic party, has endorsed the imprisonments of elected Kurdish politicians and nominated ultranationalists, among them Mansur Yavas, the mayor-elect in Ankara, the national capital. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the C.H.P. leader, has said that he “loves” the ultraright nationalists. He has also said that the left-right divide has become irrelevant and that it was a mistake by the left in the past to focus on income redistribution.


The C.H.P. formed an alliance with the Good Party, whose leader Meral Aksener as interior minister in the 1990s oversaw a dirty counterinsurgency war against the Kurds. She has not offered any evidence that her views have become more moderate since. Both the M.H.P. and the Good Party are intensely opposed to changing Turkey’s oppressive practices toward the Kurds.

Fundamentally, Turkey’s democratic evolution has been hampered by the absence of a democratic leftist alternative. The authoritarian right has held sway since the Turkish republic was founded in 1923. The historical record shows us — Sweden a century ago or Spain, Greece and Portugal in the 1970s — that a strong democratic left is crucial for democratization.

The Turkish state has been consistently ruthless in its oppression of the left. In 1921, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) had all 15 members of the leadership of the Turkish Communist Party killed, fearing a leftist challenge to his power. He banned trade unions and imprisoned leftist intellectuals of all stripes.

Mr. Erdogan has carried on Mr. Ataturk’s legacy by maintaining a labor-hostile order. The A.K.P. government has banned strikes of nearly 200,000 workers. Twenty-two thousand workers have lost their lives in workplace accidents since the A.K.P. came to power.

Turkey’s democratic travails have conventionally been explained through the supposed clash between Islam and secularism. Turkish democracy is generally — and inadequately — understood to have been undermined by the military allegedly staging coups to protect secularism and, in recent years, by the Islamist ambitions of Mr. Erdogan.

In fact, the history of Turkey has been shaped by class politics that are obscured by a misleading narrative that pits Islamization against secularism. Closer inspection reveals that Turkey’s secularists and Islamists represent the two shades of the same right-wing ideology, which includes a commitment to unrestrained capitalism, hostility to labor, conservatism and nationalism.

Mr. Ataturk’s secular reforms laid the foundations of a modern capitalist society, but for his successors it has made sense to use Islam to protect capitalism. With the onset of the Cold War, Turkey’s ruling, ostensibly secular elite opted for Islamization to check leftist politics, and religious education was reintroduced in 1946.

The rise of socialist student and labor movements in the 1960s and of a democratic left in the 1970s prompted the military to step in to crush the left. Gen. Kenan Evren, who took power in 1980 after a coup, called upon the people to “firmly embrace our religion” to ward off the threat of socialism. His junta made religious education mandatory, opened new religious schools and continued to populate the state bureaucracy with members of religious fraternities, who were reliable anti-socialists.

The military junta also imposed a neoliberal order that the business class had been calling for; it banned trade unions and incarcerated their leaders and activists, together with hundreds of thousands of other leftists.

Mr. Erdogan rose to power promising to serve the same capitalist interests. He embraced the neoliberal economics of the generals and was endorsed by the secular, westernized business barons who did not mind his religious conservatism.

The Islamic conservatives recast the class conflict as a cultural conflict between the people and the elite. They won by championing the religious culture of the masses, but privileged the interests of the economic elite after coming to power.

Mr. Erdogan’s populism notwithstanding, income inequalities have grown under Mr. Erdogan. The richest 1 percent of the population has increased its share of the national wealth by 43 percent, putting it in possession of 54 percent of the country’s wealth.

Paul Krugman has been doing explanatory journalism since 1996, moving from a career as a world-class economist to writing hard-hitting opinion columns.

Conservatives — secular or Islamic — have won every Turkish election since 1950 except once. That exception was in 1977, when the democratic left led by Bulent Ecevit, a progressive populist who called for social justice and respected popular religiosity, won over 40 percent of the votes. Mr. Ecevit’s call for social justice alarmed the business elite and the military that feared that a Communist revolution was in the making.

The present regime in Turkey has its ideological roots in the right-wing coalition of the 1970s, when the secular conservatives, ultranationalists and Islamists came together to defeat the ascendant left. This was when Mr. Erdogan began his political career in the Islamist National Salvation Party.

The paramilitary gangs of the ultranationalist M.H.P. abetted by the security forces killed thousands of leftist supporters, students, intellectuals and labor activists between 1975 and 1980. Last month, President Erdogan paid tribute to this heritage when he ordered a university in the city of Adana renamed after Alparslan Turkes, the founding leader of the M.H.P., who led the bloody campaign against the left in the 1970s.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the C.H.P. leader, endorsed this decision, a stunning step considering that the right-wing death squads commanded by Mr. Turkes had attempted to kill Bulent Ecevit, the democratic leftist C.H.P. leader, in the 1970s.

But Turkish social democrats have simply never recovered from the devastating blow of the 1980 coup to challenge right-wing ideology; instead, they have concluded that they must shift to the right to appeal to the people.

If the democratic left had not been crushed, Turkey would most likely have followed the same democratic path as Greece, Spain and Portugal. Turkish social democrats today would do well to revisit the example of the 1970s. They need to speak for social justice and freedom, instead of aligning with right-wing nationalism, if they want to make a difference.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.