The first ever street act by Turkey’s main opposition

The first ever street act by Turkey’s main opposition

The march that was started by social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in a call for “Justice” on June 15 may mark a turning point in Turkey’s political history.

The march is the first street act by a mainstream opposition party ever in Turkey, other than rallies during election or referendum campaigns. Kılıçdaroğlu made the call on June 14 in reaction to the ruling of an Istanbul court that sentenced CHP MP Enis Berberoğlu to 25 years in jail and sent him to prison. 

Denouncing the ruling as politically manipulated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), Kılıçdaroğlu said he would start his march for “justice” from Kızılay’s Güvenpark, near the Prime Minister’s Office in Ankara, to the Maltepe Prison in Istanbul where Berberoğlu has been jailed.

“Enough is enough,” the CHP leader said as he started walking yesterday. “We want justice for all citizens in the country.” 

CHP officials say they plan for the march to be completed in 23 days, which means that Kılıçdaroğlu and those who join the march will be walking 18-20 km each day, spending nights in tents where they stop along the way. On the first day of the march, the group reached the suburbs of Ankara, Turkey’s capital which has a population of around 5 million. 

“We were not expecting such a ruling,” Kılıçdaroğlu told the Hürriyet Daily News on the night of June 14, as one of his aides brought a pair of walking shoes he was going to try on to his office. “There is simply no evidence in the case. We thought he [Berberoğlu] would either be acquitted or the case would be dropped. That’s why we think it is a political ruling with no legal justification.”

The court ruled that Berberoğlu, who used to be the editor-in-chief of daily Hürriyet before quitting journalism and joining the CHP, revealed state secrets and thus committed an act of espionage by giving visual material to the center-left newspaper Cumhuriyet in May 2015. The material was footage of the gendarmerie search of three National Intelligence Agency (MİT) trucks allegedly carrying military material for rebel groups involved in the Syria civil war in January 2014. 

The visual material had actually been published and broadcasted in 2014 but a court restriction was later placed on it after a case was opened against the gendarmerie officers, prosecutors and judges involved in the search on the grounds of national security. Those security and judiciary officials were also accused of being linked to the illegal network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. 

As a result of these links, one of Berberoğlu’s crimes, according to court, was “knowingly” helping a terrorist organization, the Gülenist network. Ten journalists and executives of Cumhuriyet have also been in jail for the last 229 days over simultaneously helping both the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ)” and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) because of their publications. 

Returning to Kılıçdaroğlu’s march, he is walking alone, separate from the crowds following him and carrying a placard in his hand bearing just one word: “Justice.” Perhaps recalling one of the old nicknames some of his followers gave him (“Gandhi Kemal”), he thus presents a typical civil disobedient picture. Starting from yesterday, the CHP started to hold similar peaceful disobedience acts in many provinces across the country, party officials have said.

There is another point worth mentioning. There were concerns that the government would stop the action by force, citing the ongoing state of emergency declared after the 2016 foiled coup. But it did not. On the contrary, at least on the first day, the police dispersed a small group trying to attack the marchers in the streets of Ankara. This shows that - at least for now - President Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Parti government is well aware of the sensitivity of the situation.

What the CHP is attempting is a new experience in Turkey, demonstrating once again the always surprising nature of Turkish politics.