Hundreds of thousands of people joined Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), at a massive rally in Istanbul on July 9 which marked the end of the 69-year old politician’s 450km “Justice March”. This was the largest anti-government rally the country has seen for years.
Kilicdaroglu set out from the capital Ankara on June 15 after one of his deputies, Enis Berberoglu, was jailed on espionage charges. Berberoglu was the first CHP lawmaker to be imprisoned in the purges following last year’s failed coup attempt, joining several deputies from the pro-Kurdish HDP who have been jailed on terror-related charges since the botched putsch.
In the government crackdown, about 50,000 people have been arrested and 120,000 have been dismissed, while 965 companies with assets of around TRY 41bn ($11.3bn) have been seized over alleged links to the coup plotters.
“Why did we march?” asked Kilicdaroglu, whose three-week protest march prompted comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful protests.
“We want justice not only for those who gather here, we want justice for everyone. We have marched for journalists and lawmakers who are in prison, for academics who have been sacked, and for the civil servants who have been wrongfully dismissed from their job, we have marched for all the oppressed,” the social democrat leader told the crowd which gathered in Istanbul’s Maltepe district, chanting “Rights! Law! Justice!” during his speech.
According to the CHP, 1.6mn people attended the rally, but the Istanbul governor office said only 175,000 people turned up.
In his one-hour long speech at the rally, Kilicdaroglu called for an end to a state of emergency that was declared shortly after the coup attempt and which allows President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government to rule by decree.
He also demanded the release of imprisoned journalists and the restoration of the judiciary’s independence.
“This is not the end, this is just a beginning, our first step. This march marks a new climate, a rebirth,” the opposition leader declared.
Erdogan and the government tried to belittle and discredit Kilicdaroglu’s march.
“The line represented by the CHP has now exceeded being the political opposition. It has come to a point where they are acting with terrorist organizations and the forces inciting them against our country,” Erdogan said on July 1, Hurriyet Daily News reported.
“Why is he torturing himself? He can take the high-speed train to Istanbul,” PM Binali Yildirim mocked Kilicdaroglu, calling on the opposition leader to halt the protest march.
But Kilicdaroglu’s march appears to have been a rare triumph for the country’s cowed opposition.
“The government was caught so completely off guard by this act of protest that all it could do in the end was to provide security for the marchers, who garnered a lot of public sympathy on the way,” political commentator Semih Idiz wrote in a July 10 article for Hurriyet Daily News.
According to a survey carried out by Istanbul-based research company Istanbul Ekonomi Arastirma, 43% of the public supported the Justice March, while 53.5% disapproved of it.
The level of support for the march in the survey is larger than the 25.3% of the vote the CHP garnered in the November 2015 general election but less than the 48.6% the ‘No’ camp secured in the April referendum on introducing an executive presidency with sweeping powers.
As things stand now, the government is unlikely to meet the opposition leader’s demands or soften its policies in the face of the mass rally. In fact, only a day after Kilicdaroglu ended his march and read out his demands, in a sign of defiance the government widened the crackdown. Dozens of people, including several academics, were arrested over their suspected links to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who the government says was behind the coup attempt.
And on July 11, the authorities ordered arrests of more than 100 people working in information technology in an investigation into the Gulenist network. On July 12, arrest warrants were issued for 34 former employees of state-run broadcaster TRT and 14 soldiers.
The state of emergency, which has been renewed three times already, expires on July 19 and the government is expected to extend it once again for another three months.
It was out of the question under current circumstances to lift the state of emergency, but it may be lifted in the “not too distant future” Erdogan said on July 12.
It remains to be seen whether the Justice March represents a turning point for Kilicdaroglu, who was once seen as an incompetent politician but stunned the nation last month by making the unprecedented move to launch the Justice March.
“The Justice March may have changed the CHP itself from a static to a dynamic organism, as well as the wider political culture in Turkey,” political commentator Murat Yetkin argued in an article for Hurriyet Daily News published on July 10.
“He started his justice march as CHP chairman…and now seems to have the potential to become Turkey’s opposition leader,” Yetkin optimistically concluded.
But the task facing Kilicdaroglu is enormous: to unite the country’s deeply fragmented opposition forces. For many outside observers, the June 9 rally in Istanbul is an indication that the CHP leader is ready to live up to the challenge. Yet the task is tremendous and more complex than it seems.
Encouraged by the large attendance at the Istanbul rally, Kilicdaroglu has vowed to step up the struggle against the government. But he did not say how he would do that and what his strategy was: will he challenge the government at parliament or in the streets through more rallies?
The CHP cannot stop Erdogan’s AKP in parliament. The ruling party has 317 seats in the 550-seat parliament versus CHP’s 133.
Moreover, the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is cooperating with the AKP since the failed coup. In fact, it was Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, who proposed holding a referendum on the executive presidential system at a time when even Erdogan seemed to shelve the idea. Bahceli himself publicly declared that he would vote in favour of an executive presidency, and the ‘Yes’ campaign duly won a narrow victory on April 16, according to official results that are disputed by the opposition.
The MHP also supports the government crackdown on the HDP. The nationalist party leadership joined the AKP in criticising Kilicdaroglu’s Justice March. Bahceli accused the CHP leader of supporting the Gulenists.
The march and the rally in Istanbul attracted people from very different lines of the political spectrum, including social democrats, socialists and nationalists. Even some lawmakers from the HDP briefly joined Kilicdaroglu on the walk.
Support from different quarters of the public may seem to represent an opportunity for Kilicdaroglu to help him build a strong movement to mount a challenge to Erdogan, but this ironically is Kilicdaroglu’s dilemma: how can he keep these dissimilar groups with different political agendas united until 2019 when the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously? Can he keep the current momentum alive so that he can beat Erdogan in the next polls?
It is unlikely that Kilicdaroglu, who has not yet said whether he would run for president, will seek an alliance with the HDP, fearing that such a move will alienate nationalists and some patriotic CHP supporters. The HDP garnered 10.8% of the vote in the November 2015 election.
Meanwhile, Meral Aksener, a popular nationalist politician, is expected to launch her own party by the end of this year. She was expelled from the MHP for challenging Bahceli’s leadership. Some nationalists, who have previously voted for the AKP and MHP, may support Aksener’s new party not the CHP in the next election.
The people gathered in Istanbul on July 9 were happy to see a bolder and more combative Kilicdaroglu. There is no doubt that some of those who attended the Istanbul rally demand immediate, decisive action from Kilicdaroglu, while others are willing to show patience and wait until 2019. Kilicdaroglu has to keep these groups together.
For the moment, Kilicdaroglu, however, does not appear to have a solid road map for confronting the powerful Erdogan, who has survived the 2013 Gezi Park protests and a coup attempt last year and has not lost a single election since 2002.
“Kilicdaroglu has reinjected hope in millions of Turks who are deeply worried about the rapid deterioration of their democratic and secular system, and the glaring injustices they see,” Semih Idiz observed. But he added that “no one is expecting an overnight miracle to emerge from this march”.
For the first time in years the CHP and Kilicdaroglu dominated the political conversation in Turkey, at least for 25 days. But the question is whether he can seize on the current momentum to build a national movement that can finally tilt the balance of power in favour of the opposition.
“Erdogan has carefully avoided taking drastic actions against the marchers and let them hold a giant peaceful rally in Istanbul; he can now simply play for time and wait for the momentary excitement to dissipate,” said Wolfgango Piccoli at Teneo Intelligence.
The government is responding to the Justice March with events between July 11 and July 16 across Turkey to mark the first anniversary of the coup attempt.
Parliament will convene in a special session on July 15, with President Erdogan addressing the nation at 02:32am, the exact time when fighter jets belonging to the coup plotters dropped bombs on parliament a year ago, Hurriyet Daily News reported. There will be a national unity march over the Bosporus Bridge, the name of which has been changed to the July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge after the coup attempt, and Erdogan will also give a speech at the bridge, according to the newspaper.
According to Piccoli, the first anniversary of the coup attempt provides Erdogan with a great opportunity to “bury the Justice March”.
“As for the CHP, it will at best gain some self-confidence and vigour but it is doubtful that the opposition party will be able to keep the momentum created by the march, especially since its agenda for the week and months ahead remains unclear,” Piccoli observed.