Main opposition party’s next challenge: Keep up momentum
Joining the main opposition party’s justice march to cover it on its 20th day, one of the first things that attracted my attention was a man carrying a large straw hat. A picture of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, along with the word “justice” was attached to the hat.
The man also wore a T-shirt over his jeans with the writing: “20th day, justice for everyone” on the front and “Rights, laws, justice” on the back. His beard was a sign that he had not shaved for some time.
With a megaphone in hand he ran up and down the cortege. He saluted bystanders and he cheers those looking on from their balconies or windows. Some enthusiastically applauded or waved Turkish flags; some displayed a negative reaction by showing the four-fingered “rabia” sign, a hand gesture associated with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
At one point the man went toward the back of the march and came back with a veteran runner, who he announced from his megaphone to be 95 years old. Taking him by the hand he brought him to Kılıçdaroğlu at the front of the march. Then he also took a handicapped participant to the front of the march, cutting through the front ranks. Someone shouts out: “Slow down, you’re going to kill the man!” But he cannot slow down because Kılıçdaroğlu has not been slowing down.
It turns out that this man was Veli Ağbaba, a CHP deputy from the eastern city of Malatya.
The nearly 50 marching CHP MPs are barely recognizable after being on the road for more than 20 days. Gone the dark suits required by parliament’s strict dress code; in are the outdoor clothes, jeans and T-shirts.
CHP Parliamentary Group Chair Özgür Özel is another one tasked with running up and down the cortege. He wears the wires of a walkie-talkie with an earphone and looks almost like part of the security detail.
While he was running up and down, someone from within the march approached him, handed over his large professional camera, and asked him to take his picture with Kılıçdaroğlu. So he ran in front of the CHP, started walking backwards, and took a picture.
During breaks in walking under the summer heat, Kılıçdaroğlu and party officials are secluded from the public in order to get a proper rest. Crowds stood by. A group of women wanted to meet Kılıçdaroğlu but he was busy giving an interview to an international media outlet. “But I wrote a poem on justice. I wanted to recite it to him,” complained one of the women. Engin Altan, another CHP parliamentary group leader, then approached the group and stood listening to the poem rather than sit resting his aching feet.
In the caravans where the deputies rest, shoes and socks get taken off, while some rest their feet by propping them up on the wall. The conversation revolves around lost toenails. “Two of mine have fallen off already, I expect a third to fall to before the march ends,” says one MP.
“I used to walk a lot, and we all got the best walking shoes after the march started. But our feet are still in a terrible condition,” said Istanbul deputy Gülay Yedekçi, showing a picture of her bandaged feet after the first week of the walk. She soothes them with lemon every night, saying it works to ease the pain.
“What do you prefer: The corridors of parliament or being out in the field?” I asked Levent Gök, another parliamentary group leader. “We can do both, as there is a need to be present in both,” he replied, while at the same time busy trying to organize families members of the innocent victims killed in an aerial bombing in Uludere in the southeast in 2011, who were also joining the march.
“I would not have believed it if I had not seen the performance of the MPs with my own eyes. This was one of the big surprises for me,” said Meral Ciyan Şenerdi, who also attended the march on June 4. “They have been in such a big effort to facilitate the march. They really showed that they were representatives of people.”
“We nearly all went through primaries before being nominated by the party as MP candidates. We are the only MPs elected with the free will of the people. So yes we are the people,” CHP Bursa deputy Nurhayat Kayışoğlu said in response.
“I originally came to take part for just one day. But I was so impressed by the spirit that I felt like coming back. Now I’m on my 6th day of walking,” another participant told me.
“We have waited for so long for this march,” added Şenerdi.
The CHP has long been criticized for being an inefficient opposition against the government’s policies, but the justice march seems to have created a wave of enthusiasm among its old-time and potentially new supporters.
However, there are still many skeptics who are doubtful about the impact of the march and wondering what will happen next after it ends in Istanbul this Sunday, June 9.
Indeed, this will be the main challenge facing the CHP in the aftermath of the march: Keeping up the momentum.