Turkey - The faults of the earth's crust and those... of the regime

sept/oct 1999

Admittedly, the sudden deterioration of the social situation in Turkey is first of all due to the earthquake which took place in the North-West of the country during the night of August 16th. But, for all their strength and unpredictability, the movements of the earth's crust would not have had such catastrophic consequences were it not for the derelict state of Turkish social conditions. These consequences may result in deepening the crisis in Turkey. But if such is the case, it will be because the earthquake revealed social failings, the causes of which are definitely not natural.

Izmit, a town which is located sixty miles to the South West of Istanbul, was very close to the epicentre of the earthquake. It is also the heart of the country's main industrial and working class area. 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. 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 generalised corruption.

It was claimed in the newspapers that 65% of the town's buildings were either totally illegal or failed to comply with regulations: high-rise blocks had been built where only 2 to 3-story houses were meant to be built; the building techniques did not comply with the anti-seismic norms meant to be used everywhere in that area where it had been known for years that earthquakes were to be expected with almost absolute certainty; since most of the development was for working class housing, every possible safety breach was "allowed". The total contempt of construction business' for the safety of the population and the complicity of the authorities explain the likely toll of 40,000 dead. Whereas, according to experts, there would have been no more than 400 casualties, had the present 30- year old safety regulations been respected by building contractors.

The earthquake has widened the gap further between the regime and the population. In the days following August 17th, people witnessed the inactivity of the authorities and, above all, the absence of the Turkish army, which although the largest and best equipped army in the region, proved uninterested when it came to mounting a rescue operation rather than waging war. There were large- scale expressions of discontent and outrage against the attitude of the authorities. Even the press chose to express these feelings, although for its own reasons, which we discuss below.

Today hundreds of thousands find themselves homeless in the country's most urbanised region. Many workplaces which can no longer operate due to the damage caused by the earthquake have closed down. Unemployment is spreading as a result, thereby reducing even more the income of a population which has been already badly hit. Meanwhile profiteering speculation is pushing up the prices of basic goods in the disaster area. Inflation is soaring as a result. All these factors are aggravating the social and political crisis and could contribute to hastening the downfall of the Ecevit government.

The April 18th election

The present Ecevit government, however, has only been in office for a few months, following the April 18th election, which saw the victory of the nationalist fa-right (MHP - Milli Hareket Partisi or Nationalist Movement Party) on the one hand, and that of Ecevit's nationalist left (DSP - Demokrat Sol Partisi or Left Democratic Party) on the other.

Ecevit is an old hand at Turkish politics. He was prime minister in the period preceding the 1980 military coup and came back into office in the autumn of 1998 as interim prime minister, following the resignation of the previous government led by Mesut Yilmaz - who had been accused of complicity with the Mafia. The subsequent series of governments all fell rapidly under accusations of corruption. This allowed Ecevit to appear as an honest man, free of any suspicion of corruption, which is something rather exceptional in Turkish politics. Because of this, as well as his nationalism and his stand against any concession to the Kurds, Ecevit was seen favourably by the leading circles of the army, who were looking desperately for a way of forming a government which would have at least some degree of stability. And in Turkey the opinion of the army's general staff is always decisive when it comes to important political choices.

In addition, Ecevit stood in this year's election as the man who had captured the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. Indeed the man hunt against Ocalan, which began when he was expelled from Syria in the autumn of 1998 and ended with his abduction by Turkish agents in Nairobi in February this year, provided the basis for a kind of nationalist delirium on the part of Turkish politicians, including among Ecevit's government (which was already in office) and the MHP.

This unscrupulous use of nationalist demagogy seems to have benefited both Ecevit's DSP and the MHP. Their success was due to their campaigns against what they described as Kurdish "separatism", as well as against the leaders of other European countries who were accused of giving shelter to Kurdish nationalists - in particular Germany and Italy. Other factors in their success were the discredit of the right-wing parties, the ANAP (Yilmaz's party) and the DYP (led by Tansu Ciller) and, to an extent, of the Islamic fundamentalists. As for the social-democrat CHP, its credit was wearing thin due to having participated in government for so long. The DSP won 22% of the vote (compared with 12.5% in the previous 1995 election) while the MHP won 18%. After having had no seats in parliament for 19 years, due to the 10% minimum imposed by the electoral law introduced after the 1980 military coup, the MHP had made a spectacular comeback.

The Ecevit government was formed on May 28th on the basis of a DSP-MHP coalition which was joined by ANAP. A number of ministers, therefore, are MHP members. This party bases itself on an outright fascist ideology. It was formed in 1965 by colonel Alpaslan Türkes and came to prominence in the 1970s through murdering working class activists and helping the police and the army to attack striking workers. 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 them many social-democrat supporters of Ecevit. In addition, the MHP (known as the party of the "grey wolves") has developed strong roots in the police and the state machinery in general and always had protectors in high places. Over the past years, it has played a role in many suspicious affairs, ranging from corruption to the unresolved murders of liberal figures.

This party has therefore been promoted to government position thanks to Ecevit who chose to forget altogether about the MHP's past, including its role in the murders of many activists from Ecevit's own party.

Nationalist demagogy in government

Just after coming into office the new government fanned nationalist flames by sentencing Ocalan to death. What Ecevit's government eventually decides to do is another question: it may find it more expedient not to carry out the sentence and to keep Ocalan in jail, so as to use him at some point in the future should the opportunity arise. This option is made possible by Ocalan's own attitude. Even before his capture, Ocalan had stated that the armed struggle was a dead-end for Kurdistan. Subsequently he offered to "serve the Turkish state", provided he remained alive in return, with the view to finding a solution to the Kurdish issue without putting into question Turkey's territorial integrity. The Turkish government and the army have already used Ocalan's attitude to portray his capture as a political victory by the Turkish state over the Kurdish guerilla movement - since their main leader himself declared that carrying on the fight was a dead-end.

The Ecevit government, therefore, has already made itself stand out, through its nationalist and gung -ho proclamations about Turkey's territorial integrity, its periodic provocative muscle-flexing against neighbouring countries such as Greece and Iran, and the border incidents it provoked with these two countries. But then of course, these things are part of the usual methods used by Turkish governments and, above all, they are part of the demagogic weaponry of both the DSP and MHP. But such worn-out methods cannot divert for long the attention of a population which is confronted with much more serious problems today, for which the government has no solution to offer.

Attacks against the working class

One of the first measures introduced by Ecevit's government was aimed at workers' pensions. In order to reduce the budget deficit caused by the cost of the war in Kurdistan and the build-up of the country's foreign debt (more than $100bn today), the government announced that what needed to be changed was the pension system which, so far, allows women to retire at 50 and men at 55.

This attack on pensions is particularly outrageous in a country where working conditions are so hard and physically damaging that many employers consider that anyone past 30 is too old to be productive. Besides pensions are so dismal that they only allow bare survival. This did not stop Ecevit, however. Using recommendations made by the IMF as a pretext, Ecevit presented a draft reform which will phase in a later retirement age (55 for women and 58 for men) while the minimum National Insurance contribution payment required to get a full pension will increase from 5000 to 8300 days of contribution. According to trade union estimates, this means that 70% of workers will be effectively denied a full pension.

The announcement of the draft reform generated immediate anger in all layers of the working class, whether in the public or private sector. All the more so as, at the same time, the question of wage increases for civil servants was on the table. Given the high level of inflation (around 80% annually) readjustments are made twice a year. But this time the government came up with a 20% offer, as opposed to the 40% demand of the unions, which would have barely covered inflation.

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. All the more so as the papers revealed how Social Security funds (SSK) were actually used to provide interest-free money to the country's central bank. If one takes into account in addition the fact that many employers do not pay their National Insurance contributions, it is clear where the deficit of the SSK comes from.

In any case discontent was such that the trade union confederations which which would have been inclined to put their signatures to the pension reform, felt obliged to organise a national demonstration against the draft reform in Ankara, on July 24th. On that day, hundreds of thousands of workers converged on the capital in coaches hired across the country by the union confederations - including Türk-Is (right-wing), Hak-Is (Islamic) and the left confederations DISK and KESK (civil servants). The demonstration was impressive and the media had no choice other than to give it its due coverage.

However, after having declared that the fight would continue after this demonstration, the general secretary of Türk-Is used the pretext offered by some minor concessions made by the government, to abandon further action. The other confederations followed suit one after the other, on the grounds that Türk-Is was no longer involved.

Today the draft reform has become law - although the 8300 days of National Insurance contributions have been reduced to 6500. But the main result of this whole affair has been to weaken the relative credit that the government enjoyed among workers - among those who voted for the DSP but also among the small fraction of the working class who voted for the MHP because of its social demagogy and its stated hostility to established politicians.

These events showed that this fa-right party, despite its near-fascist ideology, is just as impotent as the others in front of the working class. The government was able to enact its reform, not because of the MHP's ability to crush working class militancy, but primarily because the trade union leaders made sure that the demonstration they had been forced to organise on July 24th would not be the starting point of a real mobilisation. Just as all previous governments, when it comes to confronting the working class this government needs the help of the reformist organisations - both parties and trade-unions. It would be incapable of crushing these organisations in order to stage a direct attack against the working class.

A crisis situation

After a few months, therefore, the government's credit seems already significantly weakened, first due to its policy over pensions and now because of its attitude towards the consequences of the earthquake. In addition the economy has been particularly fragile for several months already. The financial crisis in Russia, in the summer of 1998, has dealt a blow to the Turkish economy by depriving it of an export market. In many industries which had been so far relatively unaffected by the crisis, particularly the textile industry, a shortage of demand started to be felt and unemployment began to spread. Besides, 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 South-East Asia, Russia and Latin America precipitated the withdrawal of western floating capital, as western capitalists were becoming increasingly wary of the risks attached to operating in the Third World and preferred to transfer their assets back to the safety of the rich countries.

As a result Turkey's financial situation, which was bad enough already, deteriorated further. And the consequences of the earthquake are now adding to this a social dimension which, in some regions at least, could lead to explosive situations.

In the political sphere, the state machinery and politicians are becoming increasingly discredited. Corruption scandals have discredited all parties in office over the past years. At first this led voters to shift to the Islamic party. But once the latter was voted into office, a new scandal broke out two years ago, following a minor car accident - this Susurluk scandal, as it was called, revealed the ties between sections of the civil service, dubious businessmen and the Mafia. Now that the Islamic party has been 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, thereby giving them parliamentary immunity! As a result, a thick veil will probably fall over the ins and outs of the Susurluk scandal.

The fact that the state is uncontrollable, that politicians become discredited quickly with the resulting shifts in the electorate, generates endless political instability. And this is beginning to create a problem for a section of the bourgeoisie as well. As a result, many criticisms are made from within its ranks - of the increasing corruption of the state and the impotence of politicians - and demands for more "transparency" in the name of the interests of the population. These bourgeois and petty-bourgeois critics would like Turkey to have political institutions which are efficient and accountable, and often use richer European states as models (often not without many illusions). The opinion of these milieus are often voiced by editors from the main newspapers and commentators on private TV channels. These milieus were also behind a campaign for a full investigation of the workings of the state at the time of the Susurluk scandal, as well as 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.

Following the earthquake, this current of opinion has expressed itself once again. The main newspapers and TV channels were indeed instrumental in exposing the impotence of the authorities in helping out 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 also gave a lot of coverage to the reactions of anger among the population of 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 "enlightened" section of the Turkish bourgeoisie, have also proved to be a failure. Nothing they have criticised has changed. On the contrary, things have been getting worse. At most their campaigns result in precipitating the downfall of one corrupted and impotent government team which is immediately replaced by another one which is just as corrupted and impotent.

From this point of view, the odds are that the Ecevit government will follow a similar course. The "honest" Ecevit will use his credit to cover up the corruption, if not outright gangsterism, of the MHP's politicians. For the time being, he is giving his backing to the state machinery and the army by protesting that they have done everything they possibly could in order to assist the victims of the earthquake. This attitude will probably result in Ecevit losing his credit even faster than his predecessors.

As to the milieus of the bourgeoisie which are dissatisfied with this situation, they will have to put up with it, willingly or not. Ultimately, this state machinery is theirs - in that it is what protects their fundamental interests, those of the local capitalists and of imperialism in general. The fact that this state carries out its task by means of violence and corruption, that it is run by men who are trained to use these means, which they often use out of personal interest rather than ideological purposes, only reflects the real nature of the task - that of imposing exploitation and oppression on the majority of the population.

If the bourgeoisie wants a state machinery to protect its interests, it has to take it as it is, with its corrupted politicians, its thugs and warlords, its arrogance and contempt for the population - and even with its indifference when an earthquake leaves 40,000 dead among the population. It is not within the power of the bourgeoisie to adapt this state machinery to some democratic ideal which, in fact, exists nowhere outside the speeches of politicians. And even if some of its members find this state machinery too distasteful to remain silent, ultimately they, and the bourgeoisie as a whole, benefit from its existence.

If, therefore, the social and political crisis deepens and sections of the poor population and working class embark on a fight to defend their interests, they will have to avoid placing their trust in the various bourgeois factions which will try to draft them behind the fallacious objective of reforming the state on a democratic basis. On the contrary, the state machinery will have to be wiped out, including its politicians, corrupted administration, its fractious military and police. But only the working class, with the active support of the other poor classes, has the capacity to do this, provided it fights under its own flag, for its own programme of revolutionary transformation of society.

17 September 1999