05 July 2019 10:45

Labour Party (EMEP) Chair Selma Gürkan: This unity should not be confined to the ballot box

We spoke to Labour Party (EMEP) Chair Selma Gürkan about increasing unemployment and poverty in conjunction with the economic crisis, the election results, the disintegration within the AKP and opposition parties’ pronouncements.

Photograph: Burcu Yıldırım/EVRENSEL


Birkan BULUT

The historic result in the elections for Istanbul metropolitan mayor that were annulled by the Supreme Election Council (SEC) following the ruling party’s objection have produced a major breaking point in Turkish politics. The serious defeat inflicted on the AKP following seventeen years in power has also brought the single-man regime into debate. I spoke to Labour Party Chair Selma Gürkan about increasing unemployment and poverty in conjunction with the economic crisis, the election results, the disintegration within the AKP and various appeals coming from opposition parties. Noting that working people expressed their will at the ballot box with an eye on the economic crisis and oppressive policies, Gürkan stressed that in the upcoming period workers will show a strengthened tendency to unite and change confronted by the country’s issues and not just in their own workplaces. Emphasizing that wide segments of society united at the ballot box in opposition to the ruling party, Gürkan said this unity should not be confined to the ballot box.

This time, the Nation Alliance Candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won Istanbul with a large majority. What’s your take on the election results and the message the people gave at the ballot box?

These results actually said they were on their way. The SEC’s 6 May ruling to annul the elections was an unjust, unlawful and unconvincing ruling. It was incapable of persuading public opinion. A great many things were tried, such as the polarizing language, oppressive policies and demonizing attitude towards the opposition the political rulership employed, its wish to use Abdullah Öcalan’s message as a tool for political exploitation and bringing Osman Öcalan onto state television. All of this roused the people’s hackles and the pent-up anger made itself felt at the ballot box.


There has been much discussion of the metropolitan municipalities passing to the CHP in the 31 March elections, but there was a noticeable decline in the AKP vote in large industrial cities such as Kocaeli, Adana, Konya, Bursa and Kayseri. So, there is a need to assess the election results as a whole in conjunction with the previous elections and not just with reference to the three big cities. The rerun Istanbul election was the apex of this process. We see as a whole when looking at the elections over the past few years that the people are lukewarm towards the single-man regime and have finally called a halt to it. On the other hand, it has become evident that polarizing language and the politics of lies and exploitation lack long-term sustainability among the populace. However, what basically strikes home from our viewpoint is the People’s Alliance’s perceptible electoral loss in the industrial cities, while in Istanbul İmamoğlu took the lead in sub-provinces such as Esenyurt, Fatih, Tuzla and Pendik in which workers and wage earners, among whom those in precarious employment predominate, are concentrated and the People’s Alliance had more than 80% of the vote. Undoubtedly the economic crisis and increasing unemployment and poverty had a major impact on this. Additionally, measures the political rulership is trying to take to make the people foot the bill for the economic crisis, transferring severance pay to the fund, widening the scope of individual retirement insurance and readjustments to taxation have made workers and wage earners less favourably inclined towards the ruling party. We also think the impasse the ruling party has entered in domestic and foreign policy has had a major influence.

Perhaps another identifiable outcome is the decisive influence on 23 June of the Kurdish people whose demands and preferences of all kinds they tried to exploit in all ways. The ruling party’s readiness to exploit the Kurdish problem in all ways was made laid bare once more. Additionally, women and young people had a significant influence on these election results. So, the Kurdish problem is not a problem that is to be ignored or put on the back burner in terms of the struggle for its democratic, equal-rights-based resolution. Moreover, religion is also exploited excessively through the medium of elections especially by the ruling wing and, as such, the resolution of the issue of freedom of faith and secularism independent of electoral exploitation remains relevant for democracy.


Increasingly arduous working and living conditions in conjunction with the economic crisis are working people’s most pressing problem. However, capitalist circles are also complaining about the economic situation and want “structural reforms” to be tabled immediately following the elections. How are things stacking up in these terms?

The Turkish Industry and Business Association (TIBA) spoke of being troubled when the decision was taken to rerun the Istanbul elections and of the need to focus on economic and democratic issues. The reforms called for in the economy were actually the unabated increase of exploitation and the taking of the necessary measures for workers to be burdened with the economic crisis. As to democracy-related reforms, what is meant is a “democracy” that will facilitate capital’s affairs. What is sought is not the guaranteeing of such fundamental rights forming basic democratic criteria as unrestricted recourse to the right of strike, collective negotiation rights and the working class’s right to organize and engage in politics; on the contrary, we observe the government’s strike bans being greeted with satisfaction by TIBA. The declining unionization rate and the daily loss of four to five workers’ lives does not trouble TIBA, either. So, the thing they call reform is the whirling of their own cogs of exploitation in both the economic and political arena, the smooth continuation of capital inflows and outflows and the restriction and elimination as far as possible of workers’ attainments, rights and liberties. The approach capital calls the approach to municipal affairs that was secured in the last elections with the cooperation of civil society, capital and the public sector will essentially be the reorganization and distribution of municipal funds in line with capital’s needs and not in line with citizens’ needs.


Debate about the single-man regime has been ushered in following the election. In fact, nine months ago MHP Chair Devlet Bahçeli had said, “If the three metropolitan cities are lost the presidential system may be come up for debate.” In view of the president’s comment that work will be conducted on the new system, do you expect a step back on this point?

Of course, the succession of elections is having repercussions in two areas. Essentially, there has been increased disquiet workers feel at policies implemented especially in the People’s Alliance’s time and this was reflected in these election results. But we can speak of various developments on the capital front, too. As popular support for the ruling party diminishes, the capitalist class does not see the implementation of its own policies and programme in both the economic and political arena as being guaranteed. It has had a single guarantee until now: the AKP, shored up by popular support, found endless space to implement capital’s policies. But this is not so today. Worried by such developments, capital has embarked on a search. But the discussion taking place about the regime is not moving forward in the way we treat it. They imagined they would cover considerable ground over one year in the construction of the single-man regime following on from the 24 June elections. However, they were stuck at a very critical threshold in both the general elections and referendum and there are a whole host of question marks as to how they won. Moreover, in view of the local election results, there remains no possibility of continuing the presidential regime. Hence, they have just started to debate this regime from certain of its aspects. This does not come down to constructing this regime from scratch, though. Neither TIBA nor international monopolies and capital groups perceive the presidential regime as a problem. Essentially all capital groups, not least TIBA, want a presidential model that suits their programme to be placed before us.


So, what is your take on CHP Chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s call for a referendum?

With reference to the Nation Alliance we can say the point they raise debate over is simply the presidency’s affiliation to a political party and a single man’s word prevailing in every area. So, the debate we are regaled with in connection with regime change is the president having party affiliation and the separation of powers at the minimum level probably due to lack of trust in the judiciary. However, the President’s partiality or indeed partisanship is most palpable. What is crucial here is the regime called the party-affiliated presidential system of government sustaining damage over a year and failing to gain acceptance among the people. Hence, to circumvent discussion of a more progressive political regime, they are setting out to restructure a regime that will serve capital’s and monopolies’ needs. This is not debate about a new regime, this is bandaging and healing the wounds the current regime has sustained. However, it does not really appear likely that these wounds can be bandaged to any degree and that this will meet popular expectations relating to economic and political problems.

Your party announced that you would vote for the CHP candidate in the three metropolitan cities in the 31 March local elections to cause a setback for the single-man regime. So, what will be the roadmap in this regard following the election?

The emerging results today vindicate us. We considered that if the People’s Alliance and thus the AKP suffered a setback especially in the three cities, both the regime it is wished to construct would be brought into debate and disintegration would take place within the AKP. In the end, these two judgements of ours have been borne out. We see a speeding up in efforts to form a new party that have been long in the making. However, what is important for us is what the solution will be. Will it be possible for the AKP to be a match for the accumulated problems and workers’ expectations for a solution? Also, will a new party that emerges from the AKP be able to solve these problems? Will the National Alliance, which is today exposing certain aspects of the single-man regime to corrective debate, and the clique it represents be able to solve these problems? We think it will be unable to solve any. We want to further advance debate around a democratic regime based on popular sovereignty with the inclusion of workers and wage earners.

In the aftermath of the election, the HDP has issued a call for the formation of a democracy alliance as a third way. What would you like to say about this?

A democracy alliance is not a new matter of debate for us. However, the call Kılıçdaroğlu has made for a referendum and the HDP Co-Chair’s call for a democratic alliance and a new constitution and, on the other hand, the call by Rıza Türmen, who has made valuable contributions towards the struggle for democracy, for a new social contract are important from the point of view of articulating a need in the conditions the country finds itself in. But I can say that the calls are inadequate especially as far as political parties go. It is not enough to speak the truth; it is necessary to organize in line with this truth. We can say that the economic crisis will become graver in the upcoming period. There is also no prospect of the ruling party inclining towards a vaguely democratic political line

Are you saying the ruling party will adopt a more aggressive stance?

You see, the 31 March elections took place and in the immediate aftermath many HDP electees were not given their certificates of election and those that had been issued were annulled. That is, a kind of coup was staged against the people’s preference and this stance continues. The lawsuits filed against Ankara Metropolitan Mayor Mansur Yavaş and, even if the 23 June results make such endeavours pretty difficult, the threats of lawsuits against İmamoğlu look likely to continue. These endeavours alone are indicative of the political line that the ruling party will follow moving forward. It is clear that workers and wage earners will encounter various rights deprivations in this period in which the ruling party is constrained in all its aspects. Many reforms will be tabled that amount to assaults in the economic and democratic arena, as I said at the outset. So, we do not define units of struggle as alliances formed by a few parties combining. We saw at the last elections very different circles from a social and political point of view supporting İmamoğlu at the ballot box. The expectation of this disparate bunch is not just trust in İmamoğlu and his approach to municipal office. The reaction felt towards the accumulated problems of the system was vented at the ballot box. If such a disparate segment can come together at the ballot box, it can also unite in fields of struggle. If this union remains confined to the ballot box, we will be unable to get far.


Well, how will unity be taken beyond the ballot box?

Various causes such as the problems the economic crisis has created, the increase in unemployment and poverty and the ruling party’s oppression has had a unifying effect among wide sections of society. For example, the retirement age victims have been organized since the last general elections and became a force capable of influencing these local elections. These examples point to the importance and power to change of joint struggle and have been an important experience for working people. This is sometimes the unity forged among workers through strike struggle in collective agreement periods, and sometimes the unity in opposition to statutory measures the government is going to introduce. Struggle around demands that will meet the needs of the struggle calls for combining as a platform of struggle. Of course, for such a struggle, political parties and trade unions must have meetings, rallies and various initiatives around joint demands.


Workers in factories are saying, “We’ve seen we can change things by uniting.” Above all, this has been seen most clearly in the rout the ruling party suffered in the last election. This is not just a consciousness that is orientated towards the ballot box. I am convinced that metal workers, workers in the public sector and public workers will sit at the collective agreement table with this experience in the upcoming collective agreement periods. Until yesterday, the people, workers and wage earners said, “They are very powerful and we can’t change anything.” But this is not so today. In the upcoming period, workers will tend all the more strongly to unite and change confronted by the country’s issues and not just in their own workplaces. And these are the supports on which we will rest looking forward.


Has “everything become just fine” to use the popular expression during the election?

Everything has become fine. However, there is a need for unity and struggle for everything to be even more fine after this. I mean, nothing will be fine of its own accord. Workers and wage earners have an expectation of change. We can’t say, “We’ve voted so let it happen spontaneously.” When we consider such problems as the economic crisis, the democratic solution of the Kurdish problem, secularism, judicial independence, political oppression and reaction and the collective negotiating and organizational rights of the working class and working people, the sole solution for bringing about this change is struggle. This is our responsibility vis-à-vis our country’s future.

(Translated by Tim DRAYTON)