Ankara, Turkey’s capital, lies about 250 miles southeast of Istanbul – a one hour flight, five hour drive, or a twenty-three day walk. The distance between the capital of the Turkish Republic and the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, which may have previously been obscure trivia. This week, however, it became national news when Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, set out with a group of supporters on a protest march from Ankara to Istanbul this past Thursday.
The trigger for the protest march, which is being called the Adalet Yürüyüşü or Justice March, was the sentencing of a CHP parliament member and former journalist, Enis Berberoglu, to twenty-five years in prison on espionage charges. In 2015, while Berberoglu was a journalist working for the newspaper Cumhuriyet, he helped break a story about the Turkish government supplying weapons to Syrian opposition groups. The story centered around a video, which was purportedly recorded in January 2014, that appears to show a truck full of weapons being stopped and inspected at the Syrian border. The Turkish government claimed the story revealed state secrets, and used this as justification to jail several other journalists in addition to Berberoglu. Cumhuriyet was one of the last vocal opposition outlets before its staff was detained and its operation seized by the government in October of last year.
Parliamentarians in Turkey previously enjoyed immunity from prosecution for certain types of crimes, under a constitutional law that was intended to prevent politically motivated prosecutions. In May 2016, the Turkish parliament voted to amend the constitution and revoke the immunity. A number of CHP MPs voted in favor of the amendment, including Kilicdaroglu. Since the immunity was lifted, dozens of members of the Kurdish-based party, the HDP, have been jailed, including its leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag. Berberoglu is the first CHP MP to be prosecuted since the immunity’s repeal.
“According to Kilicdaroglu, this march is not necessarily a reaction against the jailing of Berberoglu, but rather, it is CHP’s response to ongoing authoritarian shift of the AKP government and Erdogan, and the systematic injustice that this authoritarianism caused both in the short and long run,” H. Ege Ozen, Assistant Professor Political Science & Global Affairs at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, told Muftah. Murat Yildiz, a former senior advisor for the nationalist party, the MHP, also said the Justice March was a long time coming and not the result of a CHP representative being jailed. Yildiz told Muftah that Berberoglu’s fate had been known for several months before he was officially convicted.
Nevertheless, Kilicdaroglu’s decision to stage a protest now, only after a CHP member has been jailed, has been criticized. Critics have emphasized Kilicdaroglu and the CHP’s support for the lifting of parliamentary immunities, which they surely knew would be used against all opposition parties, including their own, and argued it deprives the CHP and its leader of the right to be morally outraged now.
But, Kilicdaroglu’s failure to lead or engage in protest before does not necessarily mean he thought the law was not problematic. According to Yildiz, Kilicdaroglu and his party understood the consequences of voting to lift parliamentary immunity, but did so because there was a significant chance that, if the amendment did not pass in parliament, Erdogan would call for general elections. Snap elections could have resulted in the decimation of Turkey’s opposition, because of the high electoral threshold parties need to take a seat in parliament.
Whatever his motivations, Kilicdaroglu’s vote for the amendment is an extremely sore subject, even for those who characterize themselves as CHP supporters. “I would expect that older generations will show more enthusiastic, more active, and more participatory reaction against the jailing of Berberoglu and the protest march,” observed Prof. Ozen. “I speculate that younger CHP supporters would not be mobilized by this march of injustice as long as the AKP government will not take additional anti-democratic and violent actions towards Kilicdaroglu and CHP.”
Muftah spoke to several Turkish voters, all middle aged or younger, who at various points have voted for and supported the CHP. Their reactions to the march were just as Ozen predicted. “It’s too late. I’m bitter and angry and still will grudgingly support the justice march just because I’m still hoping for a big united front against the AKP,” was the typical response of one young Turkish woman, who now lives in Europe.
Fear the Justice March has come too late, combined with hope it might have some positive effects, was prevalent among Turkish voters and experts on Turkish politics who spoke to Muftah. “It might be too late, but better late than never,” Yildiz, the former MHP advisor, told Muftah.
Yildiz, who knows and personally respects Kilicdaroglu, stressed that the decision to protest was taken very seriously by the CHP leader. After the referendum on an executive presidency was held in April, a win which many government opponents believe was fraudulently obtained, Kilicdaroglu was under pressure to lead a protest against the result, according to Yildiz. Yildiz said that, even though he believed the referendum results were flawed, Kilicdaroglu ultimately decided protest was too risky. In the extremely polarized atmosphere that followed the referendum, Kilicdaroglu believed demonstrations could lead to civil war.
Those fears have now subsided. But, still, most Turkish voters and political experts Muftah spoke with think the government will continue to decimate the political opposition, no matter what the protests otherwise achieve. “Erdogan is slowly but surely criminalizing Turkey’s opposition parties. He started with the pro-Kurdish HDP, and will not stop with the pro-secular CHP. I wouldn’t be surprised if he continues with the dissident nationalists of the MHP,” predicted Aykan Erdemir, a former CHP MP from Bursa who is now a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. “For the protest to be effective, it should turn into a nonpartisan social movement for rule of law and due process for all. The jailing of lawmakers is only one aspect of the erosion of civic rights in Turkey.”
There is widespread skepticism, however, that Kilicdaroglu can inspire such a movement. “I am not expecting a lot from Kilicdaroglu and think that he is just trying to show that he is ‘struggling’ and ‘making a stand’ but will not create a movement that is solid and lasting,” Begum Zorlu, a Turkish Masters of Science student in Comparative Politics at University College London told Muftah. Another Turkish voter who lives in the country’s northwest, and described himself as a secular social democrat, expected the march to end peacefully in a couple of weeks, observing that “the AKP doesn’t want another Gezi.” Nonetheless, he believes the political situation in Turkey will continue to get worse.
“From a rational-choice perspective, it is not AKP’s best interest to take further non-democratic action towards the CHP,” Ozen argued. He added, however, that “this does not mean that AKP will stop the crackdown on CHP as a result of this limited mobilization. Erdogan will be extremely cautious when taking further steps and first of all will start to create a statist discourse with which he will blame CHP being on the side of terrorist groups, especially FETO. This is going to be a perfect example of manipulating the public opinion.”
When asked whether the Justice March will have positive or negative consequences for the CHP, Yildiz did not want to make any concrete predictions, but warned that “if Erdogan tries to close the CHP, you know that he is desperate and at the end of his rope.”