Communist Party of Australia

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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 66December 2017

Beyond media sensation, religion and democracy: a class analysis of political developments in Turkey

If media hyperbole were to be believed, Turkey has been transformed from a thriving democracy into an Islamic dictatorship by the actions of Recep Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Even the military coup that attempted to oust the Turkish leader has been alternately praised as the act of civically-minded, democracy loving generals or a dastardly false-flag by Erdogan himself. Rather than relying on surface phenomena such as ideologies and supra-class appeals to democracy, Communists should first consider the class context in which these super-structural elements exist and examine the class relations that are primary in determining social reality. Instead of a struggle between democracy and dictatorship, or between Islam and secularism, Turkish events are the result of a struggle between two different factions within the capitalist ruling class and the continuing disunity of the Turkish working class.

Competing factions of Turkish capitalism

Although once united by the promise of massive profits at the beginning of the 1980’s neo-liberal reforms, the ruling capitalist class of Turkey is riven by sectional interests. The first and previously dominant faction is comprised of the biggest bourgeoisie, particularly finance capital, in alliance with international monopoly capital (Kuru 2012 p.38). Finance capital, big industrial enterprises, the highest level technocrats and the military profited the most from neoliberal reforms and aligned most closely with Western capital (Onder 1998 p.71) (Waterbury 1992 p.128). The military in Turkey actively participated in, and benefited from, neoliberal reforms as the military pension scheme holds equity in most major and joint venture enterprises (Waterbury 1992 p.128). The judiciary and until recently, the media, are traditional “ideological” allies of the military (Kuru p.38).

These forces worked hand in glove with the IMF and World Bank to pillage Turkey’s resources and create a paradise for speculation and rent-seeking. The Turkish partners in the alliance with international capital are concentrated in the most exclusive business organisation in Turkey – The Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAD). Originally established in 1971 by the 12 richest industrialists in Turkey, it would later support the 1980 coup (Keyman and Koyuncu 2005 p.113) and dominate the financial sector (Demiralp 2009 p.323). TUSIAD members are typically large companies with close ties to the state bureaucracy (Demiralp 2009 p.321).

The other major faction of Turkey’s capitalist class is headed by a new generation of entrepreneurs from the “Anatolian Tigers”. These “tigers” are the formerly backward hinterland cities of the Anatolia region in Central Turkey that experienced major booms following neo-liberal reforms. The manufacturing of this region was initially driven by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and concentrated on the production of low-value added commodities (McDonald 2011 p.535). While these capitalists were created by, and benefited from, early neo-liberal reforms, over time their sectional interests began to differ from those of the EU and IMF (McDonald 2011 p.535)(Demiralp 2009 p.319) and along with portions of the established industrial capitalists, opposed the neglect of industry caused by a “speculation/rent economy” (Onder 1998 p.68). They also recognised their substantial disadvantage when compared with the big bourgeoisie in the coastal cities and how the policy of ANAP, the ruling Party during most of the 1980’s, continued to favour established elites (Demiralp 2009 p.319). Just as the biggest capitalists have TUSIAD, the regional bourgeoisie of the Anatolian Tigers have the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MUSIAD). The association, founded in 1990 by young businessmen, is primarily made up of small and medium businesses from outside of the traditional urban centres and presents itself unofficially as a Muslim organisation (Keyman and Koyuncu 2005 p.117) (Demiralp 2009 pp.321-322).

These competing factions are typically described in bourgeois media and scholarship as “Kemalist” and “Secularist” versus “Islamist”. Rather than properly describing the class position of the factions, these terms instead describe the ideological tools these forces use to legitimise their side’s struggle for power and to coax the support of subordinate classes. The traditional ideology of the “established elite” are militant secularism, Turkish nationalism and anti-communism (Kuru 2012 p.38), with the later falling out of favour following the end of the cold war and the former being particularly useful since the 1980’s. The principle of secularism has been used by agents of finance capital in Turkey to oust parties with Islamic leanings that represented the growing “Anatolian Tigers”, disguising the intra-class struggle with a constitutional and legal fig-leaf.

The strongest institutional tool of the monopoly capital-aligned faction is the military. Until the failed military coup of July 15th last year, the military was the most respected institution in Turkey (Magali 2007) (Hurriyet 2017). It successfully portrayed itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy – secularism and stability. The myth propagated by the military is that the regular economic and political crises of Turkish history were the fault of incompetent politicians, especially left-wing or Islamic ones, so it fell to the military to save the Turkish nation and restore stability. The public impact of this myth can be seen in the fact that, until recently, public confidence in the military was considerably higher than any other public institution (Magali 2007) (Hurriyet 2017). Public trust made justifying coups easier allowing the military to carry out four coups between 1960 and 1997. The 1980 coup established the ANAP government that carried out the will of the IMF and World Bank, introducing neo-liberalism onto the Turkish political scene and it was the military that deposed the Welfare Party, the forerunner of the AKP, when it began questioning neo-liberal orthodoxy. Despite a decade of steady reforms to undermine the power of the military, public trust in the military was only eventually shaken by the failed coup, which saw support for the office of the president surpass sympathy for the military for the first time (Hurriyet 2017).

The ideological weapon of the regional bourgeoisie is a façade of political Islam. Economic changes since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 lead to an increasing gap between the coastal urban centres such as Ankara and Istanbul, and inland country regions. Major urban centres on the west coast industrialised, westernised and secularised while the countryside instead became dependant and maintained the role of Islam in social life (Demiralp 2009 p.318). Discontent stemming from the inequalities of this situation found expression in Islamism which served as a mutual link between disparate disadvantaged elements and as the “most powerful resource that mobilised this discontent” (Demiralp 2009 p.319). The disadvantaged classes particularly attracted to Islamism included migrant labourers who moved to urban centres seeking a better life but instead found themselves in crowded slums forming the new urban poor; regional intellectuals and white collar professionals who couldn’t reconcile Islamic belief with Kemalist ideology (Demiralp 2009 p.320); as well as the peasantry and the regional population in general.

The regional bourgeoisie soon took advantage of this common ideology and used it to serve their own end. As a Turkish scholar noted:

“The entrepreneurial class soon became the vanguard in the Islamist movement not only because it had the largest financial resources compared to other segments of the movement, such as the lower classes, students, and most intellectuals, but also because it was more aggressively interested in politics than other groups, given its immediate economic interests associated with manipulating politicians and policies.”

Their absolute dominance of the movement would be secured with the foundation of the AKP, the current ruling Party in Turkey, in 2001 and their success in sidelining “radical” elements (Demiralp 2009 p.320). The regional bourgeoisie’s strong interest in Islamism is predictable as it is an ideal class collaborationist ideology. It paints a picture of labour and capital being members of a united whole with common interests instead of diametrically opposed, separate entities with their own class interests (Keyman and Koyuncu 2005 p.120). Further evidence that Islamism is merely a convenient tool rather than a sincere belief for the ruling class is the attitudes and behaviours of MUSIAD members towards the financial sector. While MUSIAD leaders decried the evils of the financial sector, its unproductive nature and its anti-Islamic values, their members happily partook of the forbidden fruit once they accumulated enough capital to participate (Demiralp 2009 pp.322-323). It seems that MUSIAD’s rhetoric is in fact a response to being excluded from this highly profitable field by TUSIAD’s financial conglomerates, and that Islamic sensibilities are a mask for their class interests.

Seizure of power from international monopoly capital

By the time of the 2002 election that brought the AKP and their leader, Erdogan, to power, neo-liberalism had ravaged Turkey for 22 years. Following the 1980 coup, neo-liberalism was introduced by former World Bank employee, then Turkish Prime Minister, Turgut Ozal. The period from 1980 to 1989 saw heavy IMF interference and liberalisation of the economy with the goal of achieving “unfettered free market capitalism” (McDonald 2011 p.527) (Yeldan 1993 p.389). Of course, by adhering to these reforms, international finance capital was able to plunder the now open and defenceless country, which experienced incredibly unstable economic circumstances. In 2001, as a result of implementing IMF policies, Turkey suffered an economic crisis which halved the value of the national currency, caused GDP to drop by almost 6% and cut real wages by 20%. (McDonald 2011 p.528) (Yeldan 1993 p.389).

Political forces that dared to challenge the wisdom of neo-liberalism were deposed, just like the Welfare Party in 1997. So it is no surprise that when the newly created AKP won its first election in 2002, they were cautious about opposing the entrenched power of their factional rivals. Throughout their first term in office, the AKP diligently followed IMF orders and kept the local allies of international monopoly capital happy. At the same time, they also began to quietly redistribute some of the loot to their class allies. The tax amnesty policy of 2003 overwhelmingly favoured small and medium enterprises (SMEs), effectively shifting eight billion dollars from big companies to the former. Meanwhile, a new stock exchange just for SMEs, laws forcing banks to make loans to SMEs and the repeal of the property accounting law all favoured the factional supporters of the AKP over international capital.

In 2007, the AKP was re-elected with an increased majority of 47%. Secure in their electoral success, the AKP was able to resist IMF pressure and focus on implementing its own class faction’s interests. Very soon after their victory though, the AKP came under attack from the Turkish state. In 2007, the military made a veiled threat against the AKP and their presidential candidate Abdullah Gul. In early 2008, the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals brought a case against the AKP in the Constitutional Court, seeking to ban many of its members from politics, including Erdogan, for supposedly undermining secularism. According to one journalist at the time:

“There were no reasons for the military to come forward, so the judiciary took on the frontal attack….so we started to call it a judicial coup. The government and ruling party are now under a legal siege”.

The judicial coup and the threat of military action both failed, but the AKP’s counterattack didn’t take long to materialise. In 2008, a major investigation was launched into the recently discovered “Ergenekon” organisation, an ultra-nationalist provocateur group that carried out acts of terrorism, similar to other “stay behind” networks supported by NATO in Europe. Three hundred military officers, sixty of whom were active duty generals, were charged in connection with this and other planned coups and terrorist plots, ending the belief that the military was untouchable (Kuru 2012 p.50). Turkish scholar Cinar summed up the Ergenekon experience by saying: “In any case, the Ergenekon case seems to have not only effectively eliminated the possibility of a coup attempt against the AKP but also put an end, once and for all, to the habitual ambitions of the military to intervene in and control political life in Turkey” (Cinar 2011 p.532).

The Ergenekon case was merely the resumption of a long process by which the AKP wore down the political powers and independence of the military. Before 2003, the National Security Council (MGK), which was dominated by representatives from the military and was always led by a general, exercised extensive executive powers. Following the 2003-2004 reforms, these powers were removed and leadership of the MGK could now be exercised by civilians (Kuru 2012 p.47). The military was also excluded from its former positions on the boards controlling higher education and media. Prior to 2010, military appropriations, 10% of the Turkish national budget, were controlled completely by the military without any legislative approval or review. Later reforms would put an end to this and other military privileges including the right to try civilians in military courts, immunity for the 1980 coup plotters and complete discretion in expelling politically undesirable soldiers.

The judiciary, especially its higher ranks, fought to protect the political power of the military against the AKP’s assault. Throughout the course of the Ergenekon trials, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HYSK), the chief judicial body of Turkey, regularly interfered with investigations. Even earlier, in 2005, the HYSK disbarred a prosecutor who attempted to investigate the then Chief of General Staff over connections to a provocateur bombing of a bookstore (Bali 2010), while in 2000, a prosecutor who prepared a case against one of the 1980 coup plotters was also expelled (Kuru 2012 p.48).

Undermining the role of the judiciary as an ally of the military, and more importantly, as the legal weapon of monopoly capital, became a major reason for the 2010 constitutional reform. The constitutional reform package, brought to a referendum, included other progressive elements such as recognition of the right to collectively bargain and the rights of women, as well as judicial reform. Membership of the HYSK was to be expanded with positions on the council to be filled based on the results of a secret ballot by the country’s 12,000 judges and prosecutors (Bali 2010). Prior to reform, the HYSK was stacked with senior judges appointed by other senior courts. The same applied to Turkey’s Constitutional Court (TCC) which was formerly almost entirely appointed by other top courts, yet following the reform was much more representative of the legal profession as a whole (Bali 2010). These reforms began to undermine the power of entrenched elites in the judiciary and paved the way for members outside of the ruling pro-military clique to join peak Turkish judicial bodies.

By 2016, the political power of major foreign-aligned capital in Turkey had been severely weakened. The AKP, on behalf of their own class masters, clipped the military’s political wings and weakened the stranglehold of forces loyal to their factional enemies in the judiciary, media and state bureaucracy. It is within this context that events in Turkey should be understood. Crack downs on the military, judiciary and liberal intelligentsia following the coup attempt are not attacks on supra-class democracy, but rather the AKP seizing the opportunity to clear out the remaining vestiges of international monopoly capital’s political influence within Turkey. It represents the ultimate victory of the new wave of local capitalists created by the export oriented reforms of the Ozal government and their successors.


The Western media’s portrayal of events in Turkey following the failed coup attempt in July of last year paints a caricature of the complex nature of Turkish politics and completely obscures the bitter struggle taking place within the ruling class. Instead of the media themes of supra-class democracy under assault, or secularism versus Islam, Marxists should apply a class analysis and investigate the balance of class forces that forms the foundation of all other issues.

The current Turkish reality is the result of a struggle between a portion of big Turkish capitalists aligned with international monopoly capital and the smaller but more numerous new industrial capitalists seeking to rebalance neoliberal development in their own favour. The failure of the coup and the resulting restrictions on the power of the military and judiciary are significant because they demonstrate both the weakening of the most powerful agents of international monopoly capital in Turkey and the breaking of the power of unelected bodies in favour of elected ones. The present victory of the new bourgeoisie, represented by the AKP, sees Turkey developing out of its former status as a mere vassal of international capital, to a more independent capitalist power.

Unfortunately, the working class trails behind the two factions of the ruling class, lacking unity and organisation. The disunity of the Communist movement in Turkey has robbed the working class of leadership at exactly the time it was needed most.

Works Cited

Bali, Asli. “Unpacking Turkey’s ‘Court-Packing’ Referendum.” Middle East Research and Information Project, 5 Nov. 2010,

Cinar, Alex. “The Justice and Development Party: Turkey’s Experience with Islam, Democracy, Liberalism, and Secularism.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 43, no. 3, Aug. 2011, pp. 529–41.

Demiralp, Seda. “The Rise of Islamic Capital and the Decline of Islamic Radicalism in Turkey.” Comparative Politics, vol. 41, no. 3, 2009, pp. 315–35.

Hughes, Kirsty. “Turkish Democracy under Siege.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 43, no. 22, 2008.

Keyman, E.Fuat, and Berrin Koyuncu. “Globalization, Alternative Modernities and the Political Economy of Turkey.” Review of International Political Economy, vol. 12, no. 1, 2005, pp. 105–28.

Kuru, Ahmet T. “The Rise and Fall of Military Tutelage in Turkey: Fears of Islamism, Kurdism, and Communism.” Insight Turkey; Ankara, vol. 14, no. 2, 2012, pp. 37–57.

Magali, Rheault. “Military in Turkey Elicits Highest Levels of Public Confidence.” Gallup News, 9 Aug. 2007,

McDonald, Deniz. “The AKP Story: Turkey’s Bumpy Reform Path Towards the European Union.” Society and Economy, vol. 33, no. 3, Dec. 2011, pp. 525–42.

NA. “Public Trust in Military Plunges after Turkey’s Failed Coup: Poll.” Hurriyet Daily, 19 Jan. 2017,

Onder, Nilgun. “Integrating with the Global Market: The State and the Crisis of Political Representation: Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s.” International Journal of Political Economy, vol. 28, no. 2, 1998, pp. 44–84.

Waterbury, John. “Export-Led Growth and the Center-Right Coalition in Turkey.” Comparative Politics, vol. 24, no. 2, Jan. 1992, pp. 127–45.

Yeldan, A.Erinc. “Conflicting Interests and Structural Inflation: Turkey, 1980-1990.” The Pakistan Development Review, vol. 32, no. 3, 1993, pp. 303–27.

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