Opposition leader’s march challenges Turkish politics

Opposition leader’s march challenges Turkish politics

“I am walking every centimeter,” said main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on June 25, responding to speculation that he is traveling some of the distance of his “justice march” in his party bus. He also called on everyone to join and witness the “sincerity” of his march from Ankara to Istanbul in protest at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).

Kılıçdaroğlu started his march on June 15 in reaction to a court ruling a day before, which sentenced CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu to 25 years in jail. Berberoğlu, a former journalist, is accused of giving documents to the press about an alleged military weapons transport from Turkey to rebels in Syria. Most of the documents were already in the public domain but they were subsequently banned by the government as a breach of national security-.

The CHP head is marching to Istanbul’s Maltepe Prison, where Berberoğlu is jailed. The 69-year-old has already walked a third of the 450 kilometers between the two cities under the monitoring of physicians, including a passage at an altitude of more than 1,500 meters. At first the weather was rainy and cool, but now the summer heat has started to burn. Kılıçdaroğlu is marching with his supporters throughout the ongoing Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.

President Tayyip Erdoğan first reacted strongly on the third day of the march. The first condemnation actually came after Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) head Devlet Bahçeli, who also gave strong support to the government in the campaign for the April 16 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system.

Erdoğan accused Kılıçdaroğlu of committing an unconstitutional act by challenging the ruling of “independent courts in Turkey.” He even compared the march to the bloody military coup attempt on July 16, 2016 aiming to overthrow the government and the parliament, linking it to the plot believed to have been masterminded by U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen. “The coup soldiers had their F-16s and tanks; Kılıçdaroğlu has his march,” Erdoğan said.

In response, Kılıçdaroğlu vowed not to fall into the “trap of provocations.” “We are causing no harm to anyone and we do not want to affect the traffic on intercity roads. We just want justice,” he said. The CHP head also said they were not allowing party flags, slogans and emblems to be used during the march, while they are keen not to call on the party’s organizations across the country to rush to join the march in order to avoid overcrowding.

Such a pacifistic, almost Ghandian action has never before been seen in Turkish politics. The AK Parti decided to halt its vocal campaign against the march at the end of last week – at least for now. It has apparently assessed the situation and concluded that strong political remarks will not cause the opposition leader to give up his march, while also fearing the possibility of triggering uncontrolled attacks on Kılıçdaroğlu and his followers. Either way, the condemnation of the march has not really found much echo among AK Parti supporters, as the march is non-violent. 

Some of Kılıçdaroğlu’s messages have actually not been directed against what the government has been trying to do by force. For example, on June 25 he made a call to two academics, Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça, to end their hunger strike and return to their jobs, from which they were dismissed during the state of emergency declared after the military coup attempt. Kılıçdaroğlu said such a hunger strike was the wrong way to search for justice.

After strong accusations that he is too passive and not able to perform a real opposition - apart from objecting to what the AK Parti governments have been doing - the CHP leader finally seems to be finding a way to attract positive attention. It is another matter entirely whether he will be able to complete his march and then manage to convert sympathy into votes in the election scheduled for November 2019. But at least he has improvised a way to challenge the routine of Turkey’s politics. After all, once upon a time few would have predicted that a former mayor of Istanbul, who was jailed in 1998 for reading a poem in an election campaign, would soon rule the country and become President Tayyip Erdoğan. 

There is never a dull moment in Turkish politics, is there?