Mass March against Injustices in Turkey
Erdogan dominates political institutions, threatens march organizers
ISTANBUL — Turkey’s largest opposition party has embarked on a 280-mile march from Ankara to Istanbul to draw attention to what they call massive, ongoing injustices in Turkey.
“I’m feeling extremely tired yet happy and excited,” Republican People’s Party (CHP) member and lawyer Sera Kadıgil, who’s been walking over 12 miles a day with what she guesses are over 2,000 marchers, told The Media Line in an e-mail.
Former CHP parliamentarian and political scientist Binnaz Toprak, who walked with the marchers under heavy rain on Thursday, said they’re marching to protest against an increasingly politicized judiciary and failing institutions.
“I think it’s important to let everybody know, including foreign countries but also within Turkey, that there are people who are very much concerned about the way that the judiciary has been organized under the auspices and directives of the [ruling] AKP,” she told The Media Line.
“A lot of people feel like they can’t get justice.”
Following the failed military coup last July 15, the government massively accelerated purge of critics, dismissing over 100,000 public sector employees and imprisoning nearly 50,000.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu started a “Justice March” on June 15 after fellow party member and parliamentarian Enis Berberoğlu was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of espionage.
Berberoğlu was accused of providing the oppositional Cumhuriyet newspaper with footage apparently showing Turkish intelligence trucks illegally shipping arms into Syria.
“A lot of people said they were surprised [at Berberoğlu’s sentence]. I personally wasn’t surprised, because these things have been happening in Turkey for a long time,” Toprak said.
“I think in some ways this [march] is a mark of desperation. It’s an accurate recognition that democratic institutions have ceased to work,” said Howard Eissenstat, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy and professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University.
“Kılıçdaroğlu has finally changed tack and started to think about how he can work outside of institutions.”
Kadıgil says political institutions are increasingly dominated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“There is no other way to raise our voice,” she said. “The streets are the most democratic and basic place to ask for a legitimate demand as long as it’s non-violent.”
Kılıçdaroğlu has been criticized for being unable to unite very divided opposition groups, but has stressed that the march is “not only the CHP’s, but everybody’s.”
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and former CHP parliamentarian, says this march has been joined and supported by a diverse, non-partisan group composed of various critics of the government.
“It attracts a wider and more heterogeneous crowd than the CHP’s base,” Erdemir told The Media Line.
“I think it’s a smart strategy for the main opposition to build a new platform that’s multi-partisan that appeals to all those dissidents from different shades of the spectrum.”
Members of the second largest opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will join the march near Kandıra in the Marmara region. Popular conservative nationalist politician Meral Akşener also expressed support.
Erdemir says President Erdoğan is afraid of his many detractors uniting against him.
“I think Erdoğan is seriously concerned that this could turn into another Gezi Park protest,” he said, referring to massive anti-government demonstrations in many Turkish cities in 2013.
Turks have long been polarized in their support or opposition to Erdoğan. Nearly 49 per cent voted against a narrowly-passing constitutional amendment in April that increased the president’s powers.
Erdoğan called the march illegal and threatened legal action against Kılıçdaroğlu, who referred to the president as a “dictator.”
“He’s trying to either belittle the march, or criminalize it,” Erdemir said.
“If you take their statements seriously, it seems the only non-terrorist entity in Turkey is the AKP.”
Professor Eissenstat says there’s potential for a much larger number joining the march when it approaches Istanbul around the middle of July, but the government may stop it or AKP supporters may attack it.
“There’s some very militant followers of President Erdoğan, and the [government’s] terrorist rhetoric certainly lays the ground for a potential attack,” he said.
“I don’t think that President Erdoğan is going to be willing to allow any large-scale march […] to enter the suburbs. I think there’s a real potential for a showdown at that point.”
Marcher Kadıgil remains steadfast.
“I’m doing this because I still have hope for my country,” she said. “If the authorities try to stop us, this only shows how right we are.”
However, Eissenstat says the government, fearful of provoking more people into supporting the march, has been careful not to interfere. Furthermore, he believes Erdoğan’s own supporters may have a limit to what they will accept.
“His supporters will support him as an authoritarian [but] many of them will not support him as a dictator. He needs elections that appear to be contested. He needs a viable if preferably incompetent opposition,” he said.
“I don’t think he particularly wants Kılıçdaroğlu in prison.”