Sep 21, 1999
The sudden deterioration of the social situation in Turkey is first of all due to the earthquake that took place in the northwest on the night of August 16th. But, for all their strength and unpredictability, the movements of the earth's crust would not have been so catastrophic had they not touched a society in an advanced stage of illness. If the earthquake accelerates the development of the social crisis in Turkey, it will be only because it revealed social problems the causes of which are definitely not natural.
The city of Izmit, which is located 60 miles southeast of Istanbul, was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake. Izmit is at the heart of the country's main industrial base and it is where an important section of the working class lives. Heavy casualties there were caused by the size of the population directly affected, but also by the scandalous conditions in which urban development has taken place over the past years. The housing was built by unscrupulous developers who were only out for a quick buck and were able to by-pass all existing safety regulations thanks to generalized corruption.
The newspapers claimed that 65% of the town's buildings were either totally illegal or failed to comply with regulations. High-rise apartment buildings had been built in areas where zoning permitted only two to three-story houses. Construction materials were scrimped on. And the construction did not comply with earthquake standards in an area where earthquakes are to be expected with absolute certainty. But since most of the development was for working class housing, safety was completely ignored. The total contempt that the construction companies had for the safety of the population and the complicity of the authorities explain the probable toll of 40,000 dead. According to experts, there would have been no more than 400 casualties had the existing 30-year-old safety regulations been respected by building contractors.
The earthquake has further widened the gap between the regime and the population. In the days following the earthquake, people witnessed the total inaction of the authorities. Above all, the Turkish army, which is the largest and best equipped army in the region, was almost totally absent from rescuing those who were trapped and buried. There were large-scale expressions of discontent and outrage against the attitude of the authorities. The press expressed some of these feelings, even if it did so for its own reasons, which we will discuss later.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves homeless in the country's most urbanized region. Due to the damage caused by the earthquake, many workplaces can no longer operate and have closed down. Unemployment is spreading, further reducing the income of a population which has already been badly hit. Meanwhile, profiteering and speculation is pushing up the prices of basic goods in the disaster area and inflation is soaring. All of these factors are aggravating the social and political crisis and contributing to the increasing discredit of the government headed by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.
The present Ecevit government has been in office only since the April 18th elections, which were won by Ecevit's nationalist left DSP (Demokratik Sol Partisi or Left Democratic Party) together with the nationalist far-right MHP (Milli Hareket Partisi or Nationalist Movement Party).
Ecevit was the social democratic prime minister during the period preceding the 1980 military coup. In fact, he was the first head of government from a left-wing party in Turkey's history. But the social democratic parties in Turkey did not come out of the workers' movement as did the social democratic parties in the West. Rather, they are tendencies which came out of the old People's Republican Party, the only party during the time of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Their only real political tradition is that of Turkish nationalism. They had no relation to the workers' movement even if they might have had a few links with parts of the union apparatus, which is extremely bureaucratic and which is more linked to the state than to the workers. Coming out of this tradition, Ecevit is, above all, a nationalist. In 1974, the government which he headed sent the Turkish army to intervene on the island of Cyprus in the name of defending the Turkish minority. This led to a division of the island that continues to this day. On the social level, the working class rapidly grew fed up with the Ecevit government, opening the way to increasingly more right-wing governments in an era that ended in the military coup d'etat of September 1980.
So, it is this veteran of Turkish politics who returned to power in the autumn of 1998, following the resignation of the previous government led by Mesut Yilmaz - who had been accused of complicity with the Mafia. The numerous governments which had preceded Ecevit became used up one after another when corruption scandals erupted. By contrast, Ecevit was able to present himself as honest and free of any suspicions of being corrupt, which is something rather exceptional in Turkish politics. Thus, along with his nationalism and his opposition to any concessions to the Kurds, Ecevit was viewed in a favorable light by the leading circles of the army. When it comes to important political choices in Turkey, the opinion of the army's general staff is always decisive, and they were desperately looking for a way to put together a government which would be more stable than its predecessors.
Ecevit ran in April's election as the man who had captured the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. In the autumn of 1998, Ocalan had been forced to leave his exile in Syria after the Turkish military had pressured that country's government. He then went to Italy where he was not able to gain political asylum. Finally, in February 1999, he was abducted by Turkish agents in Nairobi. Ocalan's capture sent Turkish politicians into a nationalist frenzy, beginning with members of Ecevit's government and the ultra-nationalists of the MHP.
The shameless use of nationalist demagogy seems to have benefited both Ecevit's party of the "democratic left" and the MHP. Their success was due in part to their campaigns against what they described as Kurdish "separatism" and against the leaders of European countries whom they accused of supporting Kurdish nationalists - in particular Germany and Italy. But their success also rested on the fact that the right-wing parties the ANAP (Yilmaz's party), the DYP (led by Tansu Ciller) and, to an extent, the Islamic fundamentalists had also been discredited. The other social democratic party, the CHP, had participated in government for so long, its support was wearing thin. Ecevit's party, the DSP, won 22% of the vote, a big improvement compared with the 12.5% that it had won in the 1995 election, while the MHP won 18%. For the MHP, this was a spectacular comeback. It had not held any seats in parliament since the electoral law was changed after the 1980 military coup, when the minimum vote necessary for gaining seats in parliament was raised to 10%.
On May 28th, Ecevit's DSP formed a coalition government with the extreme right-wing MHP and the right-wing ANAP. A number of ministers, therefore, are from the MHP, this party of the "nationalist movement." This party bases itself on an outright fascist ideology. It was formed in 1965 by Colonel Alpaslan Turkes and became famous in the 1970s for murdering working class activists and for supplying thugs to the police and the army to attack workers on strike. It is estimated that the MHP was responsible for the murder of more than 2,000 left-wing activists before the 1980 military coup - among whom were many members of Ecevit's party at the time, the CHP. In addition, the MHP, which is also known as the party of the "grey wolves," the symbol of extreme right-wing nationalism, is also very strong among the police, the state administration and the state apparatus in general, from which it has always gained a lot of support. Over the past years, it has been linked to many suspicious and underhanded affairs, ranging from ordinary corruption to the unresolved murders of liberal figures.
This is the party that has been propelled to top positions in the new government, with the complicity of Ecevit who chose to ignore the MHP's history, including its role in the murders of many activists from his own party.
Just after coming into office, the new government fanned nationalist flames by sentencing Ocalan to death in June. What Ecevit's government eventually decides to do is another question; it may find it more expedient not to carry out the death sentence and to keep Ocalan in jail, so as to use him if the need should arise. Ocalan's own attitude has made this option possible. Even before his capture, Ocalan had stated that the armed struggle was a dead-end for Kurdistan. After he was captured and facing a death sentence, Ocalan offered to "serve the Turkish state" by helping to find a solution to the Kurdish problem that would not put Turkey's territorial integrity into question. The Turkish government and the army had already made use of Ocalan's attitude by portraying his capture as a political victory by the Turkish state over the Kurdish guerilla movement - since their main leader had declared that the guerrillas' fight was a dead-end.
The Ecevit government had already distinguished itself through its nationalist and demagogic proclamations in defense of Turkey's territorial integrity, its periodic posturing against neighboring countries such as Greece and Iran, and by provoking border incidents with these two countries. These are among the classic maneuvers of Turkish governments, but they belong, above all, to the political arsenal of both the MHP and DSP. But such worn-out methods cannot work for ever in diverting the attention of the population away from much more serious problems today, problems for which the government has no solution to offer. They also could not stop the population from responding to serious attacks, as the following months would show.
One of the first measures introduced by Ecevit's government was an attack against workers' pensions. In order to reduce the budget deficit caused by the cost of the war in Kurdistan and the rapid growth in the country's foreign debt, which is now more than 100 billion dollars, the Ecevit government announced that it had to change ... the pension system, under which women can retire at age 50, and men at age 55.
This attack on pensions is particularly outrageous in a country where people often start work in the factory at 14 years old, and where working conditions are so difficult and physically damaging that many employers consider that anyone past 30 is too old to be productive. Besides, pensions are so dismally low that they allow only bare survival. This did not stop Ecevit, however. Using recommendations made by the IMF as a pretext, he presented a draft reform which would phase in a later retirement age, 55 for women and 58 for men, while the minimum Social Security contribution payment required to get a full pension would increase from 5000 to 8300 days. According to trade union estimates, this meant that 70% of workers would effectively be denied a full pension.
The announcement of the draft reform generated immediate anger in all layers of the working class, both in the public and private sectors.
At the same time, the question of wage increases for state employees was being negotiated. Given the high level of inflation, currently around 80% annually, readjustments are made twice a year. In the beginning of July, the unions demanded a 40% increase, which would barely have allowed the workers to keep up with inflation, while the Ecevit government announced it would offer only a 20% increase!
For public sector workers, this meant that the government is endorsing the permanent theft carried out by inflation on their standard of living. And for all workers, the attack on pensions was seen as one more theft - and even more outrageous when the newspapers revealed how Turkey's central bank made use of Social Security funds. These funds are deposited in the central bank, where they draw no interest, while the interest rates that banks charge run from 80 to 100%, given the rate of inflation! In addition, many employers do not even pay into the Social Security fund. These are the real causes for the deficit of the Social Security.
Ordinarily, the trade union confederations would have been inclined to agree to the pension reform. But there was so much discontent that they were forced to organize a national demonstration in Ankara, on July 24th, opposing the reforms. Hundreds of thousands of workers from across the country converged on the capital in buses chartered by the union confederations - including Turk-Is (right-wing), Hak-Is (Islamic) and the left confederations DISK and KESK (civil servants). The demonstration was so impressive that the media had no choice but to give it extensive coverage.
After having declared that the fight would continue beyond this demonstration, the general secretary of Turk-Is used some minor concessions offered by the government as the excuse to abandon further action. The other confederations followed suit, one after the other, on the grounds that Turk-Is was no longer involved.
Today the draft reform has become law - although the 8300 days of Social Security contributions have been reduced to 7000, or about 40% more than the original 5000 days.
One result of this whole affair has been to compromise the relative credit the government had enjoyed among some workers. At the same time, this fight revealed something about the nature of the Ecevit government to that part of the extreme-left which had considered it to be "fascist" because some ministers belong to the MHP. In order to participate in the government, the MHP had to act like a "respectable" party; the bourgeoisie expected that it would govern like other parties, that it would put its own credit on the line, and that it would not play with fire, carrying out its own plots or violent attacks. Of course, this doesn't mean that under other circumstances the MHP would not carry out the same violent attacks against the working class or assassinate left-wing militants as it did in the period before 1980. The Ecevit government was able to pass the pension reform not because the MHP and its thugs terrorized the working class and destroyed its organizations, but because the union leaders made sure that the demonstration that they had been forced to organize on July 24th would not be the starting point of a real mobilization. Just as all previous governments, this government needed help from the reformist organizations, both parties and trade unions, when it had to confront the working class. Just as all the governments before it, the Ecevit government was unable to directly crush the working class and it needed the collaboration of the reformist political and union organizations.
Due to its pension "reforms" and because of its attitude facing the consequences of the earthquake, the Ecevit government appears to have largely spent its credit. In addition, the economy has been particularly fragile for several months now. The financial crisis in Russia in the summer of 1998 had deprived the Turkish economy of an important export market. In many industries which had been relatively unaffected by the crisis, particularly the textile industry, there is now a shortage of demand and unemployment has begun to spread. Besides that, the Ocalan affair and the tensions around the Kurdish question have dissuaded many tourists from visiting the country, thereby depriving the economy of a significant source of foreign currency.Finally, the crises in Southeast Asia, Russia and Latin America have led western capitalists to become increasingly wary of the risks in operating in the Third World, and this accelerated their withdrawal of capital from Turkey for the relative safety of the rich countries.
Turkey's financial situation, already bad enough, deteriorated further. And when the social consequences of the earthquake were added in, this created a social situation, at least in some regions, that could become explosive.
Finally, at the political level, the state machinery and the politicians are becoming increasingly discredited. As we already said, corruption scandals have discredited all parties in office over the recent years. At first this led voters to shift to the Islamic party. But once it was voted into office, a new scandal broke out two years ago following a minor car accident - the Susurluk scandal, as it was called. This scandal revealed the ties between sections of the civil service, dubious businessmen and the Mafia. Now that the Islamic party has been touched by scandal and sidelined from power under the pressure of the army, its electorate has shifted to the MHP. Ironically, the MHP's success has allowed some of the politicians compromised by the Susurluk scandal to be elected to office, thereby giving them parliamentary immunity! An impenetrable veil thus will probably fall over the strange links between police agencies, Mafia milieus and the extreme right-wing gangs.
A state which is uncontrollable and corrupt, politicians who become discredited quickly, with resulting rapid shifts in the electorate - all this generates endless political instability. This is beginning to create a problem even for a section of the bourgeoisie which criticizes the increasing rottenness and endemic corruption of the state and the impotence of politicians. In the name of the population, it demands more "transparency." Some editors and commentators from the big newspapers or private television channels voice the complaints of this section of the bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie. They say they would like Turkey to have political institutions which are efficient and accountable, and they often cite richer European states as models. These milieus were also behind a campaign for a full investigation of the functioning of the government, especially during the Susurluk scandal, and they are behind the rather more cautious and measured criticisms levelled at the generals' insistence on denying the Kurds elementary rights and carrying on the expensive war in Kurdistan to the bitter end.
This current of opinion expressed itself once again following the earthquake. The main newspapers and TV channels were instrumental in exposing the inability of the authorities to help the population, contrasting it with the wave of popular solidarity across the country which made up, to some extent, for the failings of the state. Often they gave broad coverage to reactions of anger from the population in the devastated regions and to the way in which the politicians, including the president and prime minister, were angrily booed when they visited the disaster area.
However, for years now, these criticisms and campaigns by the more enlightened section of the Turkish bourgeoisie have also proved to be a failure. The corruption of the state apparatus, its collusion with the business milieu, mafia and traffickers, its contempt for the population, the stubbornness of the generals in carrying out their war - all of this has continued and even gotten worse. At most, these campaigns have resulted in precipitating the downfall of one corrupt and impotent governing coalition, only to have it immediately replaced by another one which is just as corrupt and impotent.
The odds are that the Ecevit government will follow a similar evolution. The "honest" Ecevit will use up his credit in covering up the corruption of, if not outright theft by, the MHP's politicians. And, right now, he is supporting the state machinery and the army, claiming they have done everything they possibly could to assist the victims of the earthquake. This attitude will probably result in Ecevit losing support even faster than did his predecessors.
As for the sections of the bourgeoisie which are dissatisfied with this situation, they will have to put up with it whether they like it or not. Ultimately, this state machinery is theirs. It protects their fundamental interests, the interests both of the local capitalists and imperialism in general. If the state protects them using violence and corruption, having recourse to men who are trained to use these means, and if these men often act out of personal interest rather than ideals - this is only because they use means which are in keeping with their essential goal, that of imposing exploitation and oppression on the majority of the population.
This makes the state what it is, with its corrupt politicians, thugs and warlords, with its arrogance and contempt for the population, and even with its indifference when an earthquake leaves 40,000 dead. Nothing can reform this apparatus, certainly not a few democratic gestures by a few concerned capitalists. The state machinery - including its politicians, corrupt administration, its military and police always ready to carry out another coup - will all have to be swept away. Nothing less than a social revolution will be able to accomplish this. Only the working class, basing itself on the active support of the other poor classes, has the capacity to carry out this revolutionary transformation of society, provided it fights under its own flag and with its own program.