Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), took everybody by surprise when he decided to launch a 425-km “justice march” from the capital Ankara to Istanbul to protest against the imprisonment of one of his deputies on espionage charges.
This was an unprecedented move from the 69-year old former bureaucrat, who has long been criticised for his lack of leadership skills and political short-sightedness. Kilicdaroglu and his centre-left, secularist CHP has never posed a real threat to the AKP and its strong leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled the country, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, for 15 years. Now everybody is asking whether Kilicdaroglu’s long march represents a watershed moment for his party as well as Turkish politics or will only land him in more trouble.
Kilicdaroglu has rejected calls from Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to end the march. Tensions between the opposition and the government have escalated as Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan exchanged strong words. The president accused the opposition leader of violating the constitution, while Kilicdaroglu claimed that Erdogan and his government influence the judiciary, pushing them to hand down a harsh 25-year sentence on CHP deputy Enis Berberoglu.
“Will you resign if I prove your government gives instructions to the courts? I’ll quit politics if I don’t prove my claims,” Kilicdaroglu asked Erdogan. The president accepted the challenge and called on the opposition leader to prove his claims.
Erdogan even warned the opposition leader that he too may be summoned to appear before prosecutors.
“With around a month to go until the first anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt, which will witness week-long ceremonies and events across the country, the CHP’s march to Istanbul signals yet another politically hot summer for Turkey,” political commentator Serkan Demirtas wrote in Hurriyet Daily News.
The key question is whether Kilicdaroglu’s political endeavour will be able to raise enough political capital to invest in trying to unite the country’s deeply fragmented opposition forces before the 2019 election to confront Erdogan.
Kilicdaroglu says this is a march only for justice, to expose what he describes as the unfair and harsh practises of the government. But he is also hoping that the “justice march” will help him to keep the unexpectedly strong opposition showing in the recent referendum intact until the next poll.
Kilicdaroglu appears to believe that the 23.8mn people who, according to official figures, voted against the presidential system in the April 16 referendum can be gathered under the flag of an anti-Erdogan alliance. In practice this is very unlikely for several reasons.
The fact that the ‘Yes’ camp, led by Erdogan and supported by Devlet Bahceli, leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), garnered 25.2mn or 51.4% of the vote in the referendum, according to official figures disputed by the opposition, suggest there were defections both from the AKP and the MHP.
The AKP won 49.5% of the vote in the November 2015 general election while the MHP’s share of the vote was 11.9%. It is safe to assume that Erdogan managed to keep the AKP’s supporter base largely intact but most MHP supporters voted against the proposed executive-style presidential system.
Kilicdaroglu probably thinks that the nationalist voters’ discontent with Erdogan and the MHP leadership will only grow until 2019 and they will turn to the CHP. However, maybe he is betting on the wrong horse.
Bahceli last summer expelled a number of party members, including several MPs, who attempted to topple him. Among those who were dismissed from the party was Meral Aksener, a popular nationalist politician. Aksener, who served as interior minister in the 1990s, was one of the leading figures challenging Bahceli’s leadership. A survey conducted in April last year showed that the MHP could boost its support to up to 20% if Aksener heads the party.
According to media reports, Aksener and two fellow lawmakers, who were also expelled from the MHP, are planning to launch their own political party this autumn.
This is bad news both for Bahceli and Kilicdaroglu. This means that disgruntled nationalists, who have distanced themselves from the MHP, will vote for Aksener’s party not for the CHP. Aksener may also want to keep her distance from the CHP. So, Kilicdaroglu will have to seek alliances with other opposition groups.
Walking a fine line
Here enters the pro-Kurdish HDP as a potential ally. Eleven lawmakers from the HDP, including co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, have been jailed on terror-related charges since last year’s botched putsch.
Kilicdaroglu was criticised for “bad judgement” and political short-sightedness when he encouraged his deputies to vote in favour of lifting the lawmakers’ immunity in 2016. Critics of Kilicdaroglu warned at that time that opposition deputies would face prosecutions.
And Kilicdaroglu has remained silent over the imprisonment of HDP lawmakers, fearing that if he showed solidarity with the HDP, he might look like a sympathiser of the Kurdish party, which the government says is the political arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984.
Mithat Sancar, a prominent figure in the HDP, has voiced support for Kilicdaroglu’s march. “The opposition leader’s decision to launch the justice march was right, but came too late”, Sancar said. “This march can still represent an opportunity to join the opposition forces to defend democracy,” he added.
However, Kilicdaroglu has not yet hinted whether he plans to broaden his campaign to include the HDP, whose share of the vote in the November 2015 election dropped to 10.8% from 13.2% in the June 2015 elections.
Forming a united front with the HDP would not only damage the CHP’s support among nationalist-minded voters, and make an alliance with the Aksener’s party virtually impossible, but it could also have very serious legal repercussions for the party.
“Some CHP officials are concerned that Berberoglu’s arrest may be just the beginning of a new campaign against the party, with fabricated evidence of its links to FETO members,” political commentator Serkan Demirtas wrote.
FETO refers to what the government calls the “Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation”. The government holds US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his followers responsible for last year’s coup attempt.
Berberoglu was the first CHP lawmaker to be jailed after the botched putsch – accused of leaking images to opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet that purportedly showed Turkey’s intelligence service (MIT) secretly sending weapons and ammunition to Syrian rebels – but he may not be the last.
There are few other options for Kilicdaroglu. Non-parliamentary leftist groups, including the second largest workers’ union DISK, and several socialist parties, which are good at organising protests but show very poor performance in the polls, also back Kilicdaroglu’s march. But their support won’t be enough to help Kilicdaroglu win the next election.
For the time being, Kilicdaroglu does not appear to have any clear strategy or any plan to unite the country’s fragmented opposition, something that is anyway probably an impossible task. For instance, it is unknown if Kilicdaroglu plans to organise a massive protest when he arrives in Istanbul, which is one of the AKP’s strongholds but voted “no” in the April referendum.
The crowd walking behind Kilicdaroglu is not massive, only a couple of hundred people, including party officials and party supporters. Different political groups turn up to voice support and they leave.
Kilicdaroglu’s main problem is that Turkey is a country where at least 60% of the people have historically voted for rightwing parties. Thus, it is difficult see how a social democrat can convince a considerable portion of the country’s conservatives to vote for a centre-left party.
In the past, he tried to appeal to the conservative and nationalist voters by supporting rightwing figures in local elections, but this tactic failed terribly. Instead some critics say Kilicdaroglu should start acting like a social democrat and stop trying to steal votes from rightwing parties by employing their discourse.
But either way, it seems unrealistic to expect Kilicdaroglu to create a united front, which will include the nationalists, the HDP and socialists, to confront Erdogan.
At the end of the day, what Kilicdaroglu has started is unique for the country thus it is very difficult to predict how it will end. Some commentators think that Erdogan will even be able to capitalise on the protest.
“Turkey has never before seen such a march. Street actions in Turkey usually end in violence,” political commentator Murat Yetkin wrote in a June 21 article for Hurriyet Daily News. “So it would actually be possible for Erdogan to praise the march as an example of the strength of Turkish democracy, showing that when protesters behave peacefully there is no threat from the authorities against them. Such a line could even counter the strong criticism of him for being authoritarian”, Yetkin observed.