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Turkey braces for grand finale of daring ‘Justice March’

Ozan Kose, AFP | CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu leads the “Justice March” in Istanbul on July 8, 2017.

The head of Turkey’s main opposition party defied the odds and beat expectations when he launched a 450-kilometer protest march. But as the march reaches its destination Sunday, all eyes are on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response.


Barely a week before the first anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, Turkey is bracing for the end of a previously inconceivable 450-kilometer opposition march that has drawn tens of thousands of protesters demanding justice.

Over the past three weeks, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey’s main secular opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), has been leading a ‘Justice March’ from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul in the searing summer heat. On Saturday, the penultimate day of the protest, the march entered Istanbul’s Pendik district on the Asian side of Istanbul. The march is set to end on Sunday in a massive rally -- crowd estimates range from over 200,000 to 1.5 million -- in the city's Maltepe district, where an opposition lawmaker is currently in jail.

It was last month's arrest of CHP lawmaker and former journalist, Enis Berberoglu, that sparked the latest march, the first of its scale since the July 2016 botched coup led to a massive purge by the ruling AK Party that has seen more than 50,000 arrests and hundreds of thousands fired from their jobs.

Galvanising a fractious opposition

Erdogan has blamed the Gulenists, followers of Fethullah Gulen, for last year’s coup attempt, a charge the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric denies. While the criminal case into the coup attempt -- which began earlier this year and was postponed until October 30 – winds on in fits and starts, the government has cracked down on hundreds of thousands of Turks over allegations of their involvement in the Gulenist movement or the proscribed PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party).

The purges have included members of the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) including the party’s charismatic leader, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been in Edirne Prison on Istanbul’s European side since November, 2016.

But it was the arrest of Berberoglu, a former journalist and leader of the main secular opposition party that galvanised CHP leader Kilicdaroglu to take to the streets on June 15.

Berberoglu was sentenced to 25 years in jail on charges of leaking information about Turkish intelligence services supplying arms to Syrian rebels to the press.

Can Dundar, the editor of the newspaper that published the report, fled into exile in Europe last year. Under normal circumstances, Berberoglu, as a CHP MP, should have enjoyed parliamentary immunity.

But in May 2016, Turkey’s parliament voted to lift immunity for lawmakers in a move widely believed to target HDP politicians. Ironically, a number of CHP parliamentarians voted in favour of the measure, underscoring the fractious divides within Turkey’s opposition and the failure of the main secular party to stand up to Erdogan.

‘We walk for all our fellow citizens’

Given the lack of mobilisation and cohesion on the part of the opposition since the post-coup purges began, Kilicdaroglu’s strategically-conceived-and-executed street protest caught everyone by surprise.

“A lot of people, myself included, have tended to write off Kilicdaroglu as an inept opposition leader,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told FRANCE 24 earlier this week. “He’s been such an easy figure to ignore, or dismiss as incompetent that suddenly when he does something good, it’s hard to break out of the old narrative.”

Holding a sign printed with a single word, “Adalat” – or “justice” – the aging Kilicdaroglu has led protesters on foot through the Anatolian heartland, all the while urging demonstrators to refrain from displaying political party signs.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on Friday, Kilicdaroglu explained that, “we walk for all our fellow citizens wishing to live in peace and harmony in Turkey: for believers and nonbelievers; for Turks and Kurds; for Alevis and Sunnis. We walk for a Turkey in which beliefs, ethnicity and lifestyle do not become a reason for discrimination and punishment. We walk for a Turkey in which heads are held high and minds are without fear.”

All eyes on Erdogan’s response

But trepidation – if not outright fear – reigns in opposition ranks as the march reaches its grand Istanbul finale with all eyes on Erdogan’s response to Sunday’s rally.

His options range from letting the march end in a peaceful Istanbul protest, blocking access to the final demonstration, allowing pro-AKP thugs to descend on the protesters or ordering a security crackdown.

Coming as it will, just days before the July 15, 2016 coup anniversary, these are options Erdogan will have to weigh carefully. “The Justice March is going to leave Erdogan with some unsavory possibilities,” noted Eissenstat. “It forces him to either allow the opposition to oppose him on the streets or forces him to use force. But if it comes to seeing Kemal Kilicdaroglu in shackles, that would be politically explosive. None of the options work out well for him.”

In a policy paper for the War on the Rocks website posted Friday, Eissenstat and Steven Cook, from the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, noted, “Erdogan wants to stop the march, but he also benefits from the illusion that Turkey is a functioning democracy. Banning the march and detaining Kilicdaroglu and other CHP leaders would further undermine this pretense. This does not seem like it would be much of an issue for a leader who has overseen the deepening of authoritarian politics, but an important element of Erdogan’s success is that he can claim to be democratic and to fairly represent the popular will. The opposition does not believe this, but it is critical to Erdogan’s legitimacy that his own base does,” the authors noted before adding, “With the March for Justice, Kilicdaroglu has finally found a way to put Erdogan and the AKP on the defensive.”


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