I’ve been in Istanbul participating in the Marxism 2016 festival organised by the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP). Turkey's politics has undergone an astonishing reversal over the past year.
The president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remains the dominant figure. He led the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to victory first in 2003.
The AKP’s social base is the pious small-town capitalists of Anatolia and its economic policies are solidly neoliberal. But Erdogan has been quite masterly in exploiting the Muslim majority’s sense of having been excluded since Kemal Ataturk established the secular Turkish Republic in 1923.
Erdogan’s greatest challenge to the secularist establishment came when he initiated a “peace process” involving negotiations with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK had been waging an armed struggle since the mid-1980s, asserting the right to national self-determination of the Kurdish people, whose very existence had been denied by the state since the 1920s.
This brought Erdogan into conflict with the Turkish “deep state”. At its core are the military, who have, in successive coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 asserted their claim to have the last say in politics.
When a military conspiracy against the government—known as Ergenekon—was exposed, dozens of generals were jailed. But today Erdogan has unleashed the military in a new war against the Kurds. On the government’s own figures 6,000 people have died in the fighting in Kurdish areas that erupted in June last year.
This U-turn may have been partly motivated by Erdogan’s efforts to save his own skin. A chief ally in his war with the military was the Islamist movement led by Fethullah Gulen, which had powerful influence in the media and judiciary.
But they fell out in 2013 when the Gulenists leaked tapes exposing apparent corruption by Erdogan and his son.
So he turned brutally against them, taking over their newspapers. Erdogan now claims Ergenokon was a myth.
He has released the generals, while the Gulenist judges and prosecutors who investigated them have been sacked or even jailed.
But the fundamental factor in this reversal is the war in Syria. Erdogan believed that the implosion of the Arab world with the revolutions of 2011 would make Turkey the master of the Middle East. He intervened in the Syrian civil war, seeking the overthrow of president Bashar al-Assad.
Assad responded very craftily by pulling his forces out of the Kurdish areas in northern Syria. These were seized by the guerrillas of the Syrian wing of the PKK.
Their republic of Rojava has become an important ally for both the US and Russia in their fight against Isis and other Islamist armed groups.
The PKK advance in Syria would pose a mortal threat to Erdogan if it spread to Turkey. So he killed off the peace process.
When the PKK mounted urban risings in Turkish Kurdistan the army responded brutally. The PKK fighters discovered that US air support stopped at the Turkish border.
Amid a media blackout, Erdogan’s new-found friends in the army used air power and artillery to flatten whole towns. Outgoing prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu threw a light on the carnage when he said the government would rebuild the centre of the main Kurdish city, Diyarbakir.
With 50 percent support in the opinion polls Erdogan is in still on top. But the man who sought to remake the Turkish state and the whole Middle East has been forced back. He’s now on the old track of his Kemalist predecessors—beating the nationalist drum and fighting the Kurds.
Erdogan won’t break the Kurds. And his success is partly a function of economic growth driven by a property bubble familiar from Britain, Ireland, and Spain in the 2000s.
Erdogan has fought to keep interest rates low so that the bubble will carry on inflating.
Istanbul’s skyline—like that of most other Turkish cities—has been transformed in recent years.
But we know from the global financial crash of 2007-8 that the bubble will burst. The time may not be far off when even Erdogan’s luck runs out.