Two rallies condemning July’s coup attempt were held in Istanbul by leftist groups on Sunday, with marginalised groups mobilising in Turkey’s tightened post-coup political landscape. The lack of unity between the two groups highlighted entrenched divisions on the left of the country’s political spectrum.
While one rally in Kartal stood against ‘reactionism, imperialism and putschists’, another in Bakırköy, backed by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), called for ‘democracy and peace’.
The Kartal rally was announced last month. Its organizers had criticised the discourse of national consensus that came to dominate Turkish politics following the coup attempt, emphasising the role of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) politics in bringing about the coup.
Shortly after, a second rally to commemorate World Peace Day was announced by the ‘Solidarity for Labour and Democracy’ alliance, formed by the HDP, leading labour unions DİSK and KESK, and a number of other leftist organizations.
Like the organisers of the Kartal rally, the alliance stood against the coup and criticised the government’s practices under emergency law, in force since July 21. Organisers also emphasized the security concerns workers have faced in recent years and called for equal treatment of women and minorities, a growing concern with Turkey’s new labor law.
Trade unions were once among the most influential actors in Turkish politics, but their powers were curbed with the 1980 coup d’etat which restricted workers’ rights. Today, only 11 per cent of Turkish workers are unionised. Nonetheless, they remain a strong leftist symbol in the country.
Divisions in the Turkish left
While both rallies echoed condemnations of the coup attempt and subsequent emergency measures taken by the government, differences in outlook and perspective on the situation highlight the enduring characteristic tensions of the Turkish left.
In announcing the Kartal rally, organisers had emphasised the role of foreign powers in July’s coup attempt. ‘The coup attempt was carried out by NATO-allied, Americanist soldiers,’ they stated in a written declaration.
In a message distributed during the rally, organisers blamed the erosion of secularism on the rise of moderate Islam, which they called ‘an aggressive policy of imperialism’.
Anti-imperialism is a fundamental characteristic of the Turkish left, which dominated social activism from the late 1960s until the 1980 coup. A wide range of student groups and trade unions protested, sometimes violently, the influence of the US and NATO in the country.
Organisers also called for an investigation into allegations that the Gülen movement was formed by the CIA in collaboration with Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT). Other demands included the abolition of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which coordinates Islamic services in the country and plays a growing yet contested role in various social fields both domestically and internationally.
‘You cannot be a revolutionary without standing against imperialism, against NATO, against foreign military bases, against the EU,’ said Kemal Okuyan, a well-known communist politician and journalist.
Attendees took pride in the independent stance of the Kartal rally, where flags and logos of political parties and organisations were banned.
While the Kartal rally epitomised the traditionally anti-imperial aspect of leftist politics, the peace rally in Bakırköy showed a more contemporary face of the Turkish left embracing multiculturalism, as attendees danced to Kurdish, Laz and Armenian folk songs and held up placards written in Kurdish.
The rally was attended by HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, leading many to call it a ‘HDP rally’ or ‘Demirtaş rally’ on social media.
Organizers called on the government to abandon violent policies in response to the Kurdish issue. They also called for an end to Turkey’s recent military operation in Syria.
“We think the Kurdish problem needs to be resolved in a democratic way, by discussion. This problem cannot be solved in this country by rebellion, but it cannot be solved by denial either,” said Kani Beko, leader of DİSK.
“Parties with seats in parliament should come together and evaluate the peace process,” he added.
Many questioned why two separate rallies with very similar agendas were being held on the same day however.
Atilla Aşut, a signatory of the Kartal rally declaration said ‘no matter what the reason, this rally will weaken the unity and action capacity of revolutionary forces,’ in an article written for Turkish daily BirGün,
Aşut argued the organisation of a secondary rally on the same day was a result of the ‘childhood disease of the Turkish left.’
Divisions within the Turkish left have often been tied to the Kurdish issue, dating back to the split of the Kurdish movement from leftist organisations in the late 1970s. Divisions escalated when pro-Kurdish deputies were stripped of their immunities and dragged out of parliament in 1994 with the social democrats, predecessors of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), failing to stop this despite being part of the ruling coalition.
As with the organisers of Sunday’s peace rally, the CHP has called for the resolution of the Kurdish issue in parliament, but its leader’s approval of a bill stripping members of parliament of their immunities and recent dialogue with the AKP have cast doubt on its position as the main opposition party in Turkey.
With prospects for the resolution of the Kurdish issue appearing bleaker than ever, divisions within the Turkish left are likely to remain a reality of both parliamentary politics and activism for some time to come.