The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party on June 15 started out on a 425-kilometre (265-mile) “march for justice” from central Ankara to the Istanbul prison where journalist and MP Enis Berberoglu has been incarcerated after being jailed for 25 years on spying charges. Several thousand protesters joined 69-year-old Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at the start of a walk expected to take around four weeks.
"Our struggle will continue until there is justice in this country," Kilicdaroglu declared to reporters at the start-point in the capital’s Guvenpark. “This march is not about any political party, this is a march for justice. We don’t want to live in a country where there is no justice. Enough is enough,” Kilicdaroglu added, while holding a banner reading “Justice”.
Mainstream Turkish media did not report how many people turned up at the protest. Some left-leaning media outlets, however, said that “tens of thousands of people” took to the streets in Ankara, while not reporting anything approximating an exact figure. It is, however, difficult to verify their reports.
The march amounts to an unprecedented political move by Kilicdaroglu. It remains to be seen whether it will represent a turning point for the CHP and if it will have any significant impact on Turkey’s political scene, which has been dominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for 15 years. Thanks to an indefinite state of emergency declared after last year’s failed coup, Erdogan, who has gained the right to form an executive presidency after officially narrowly winning an April referendum, can rule by decree. More than 50,000 people have been jailed and more than 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs in purges that have taken place in the aftermath of the derailed attempt at overthrowing the government. According to the Turkish journalists union, some 160 journalists are among the imprisoned, while 130 media outlets have been shut down.
“Erdogan is waving his fingers at everyone who is against him,” Nuran, a retired teacher who declined to give her surname, told Reuters as the march set off. “The arrest was made to send a message but we are not afraid. We will resist until they jail every single one of us.”
Kilicdaroglu has the unenviable task of attempting to unite Turkey’s fragmented opposition forces, a difficult job given the deep ideological differences among Turkey’s left. He has in the past tried to secure support from nationalist and right-wing leaders, only to find such a strategy alienated CHP’s natural allies, the leftists.
Berberoglu, a former editor-in-chief of Hurriyet newspaper, is the first CHP MP to be imprisoned since parliament lifted lawmakers’ immunity in 2016. He was only arrested after sentencing, following which the CHP said that the detention and imprisonment was clearly aimed at scaring the opposition. Several members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have already been imprisoned on terror-related charges since last year’s botched putsch.
Berberoglu was accused of leaking a video to opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet purportedly showing Turkey’s intelligence service (MIT) helping to send weapons and ammunition to Syria on trucks. In the same case, Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, was sentenced to six years in prison in absentia last year for revealing state secrets. Dundar currently resides in Germany.
Erdogan, who said he was outraged by the publishing of images from the video, said at the time that the trucks were only carrying humanitarian aid destined for Turkmen groups in northern Syria and that those who published the pictures would pay a heavy price.
CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu insists no credible evidence against Berberoglu has ever been presented. “The fact that he [Berberoglu] was immediately put in prison without any pause to provide the opportunity for him to launch an objection as a member of parliament is forcing the limits of politics in Turkey,” political commentator Murat Yetkin wrote in a June 14 article for Hurriyet Daily News.
“This ruling comes at a time when Turkey is already under pressure because of journalists and politicians in prison… It is very sad and a shame to report and write commentaries about friends and colleagues who are put in jail one after another,” he added.
Yetkin argued that “rulings like this are likely to weaken the position of President Erdogan and the AKP-party government in their diplomatic ventures, especially with the West”.
Several CHP MPs and party supporters are accompanying Kilicdaroglu on the walk. Smaller non-parliamentary leftist groups and political parties also attended the rally called for the start of the march. That increased the risk of a violent confrontation with police, but local media have not reported any clashes between the protesters, who held Turkish flags and chanted anti-government slogans, and riot officers.
Kilicdaroglu, a former bureaucrat, has long been criticised for his soft stance when it comes to the ruling AKP. For instance, he declined to throw his party’s support behind street protests organised in several cities in the wake of the controversial referendum result, an outcome that gives Erdogan sweeping powers in many areas including the appointment of the judiciary.
The silence of Kilicdaroglu in response to the arresting of several lawmakers from the HDP on terrorism charges also caused disquiet.
In the November 2015 general election, the CHP won 12mn votes (25.3%) against the AKP’s 23.7mn (49.5%). According to pollster Metropoll, Kilicdaroglu’s job approval rating stood at only 24.2% in May this year, down from 25.5% in July 2016.