The Justice March is changing Turkey

The Justice March is changing Turkey

Turkey is no longer the country of 25 days ago, where an outside observer could see only President Tayyip Erdoğan and listen to what he said as Turkey’s political voice.

There are signs that the pacifistic but huge action of the Justice March, led by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) chair Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has started to change the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) stance. It may also have changed the CHP itself from a static to a dynamic organism, as well as the wider political culture in Turkey.


Kılıçdaroğlu started to walk on June 15 from downtown Ankara to Istanbul, where CHP deputy Enis Berberoğlu was jailed after being sentenced to 25 years inside one day before. Berberoğlu stands accused of “terrorism” and “espionage” for providing security-related news material to a newspaper. 

The day after the start of the march, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım slammed Kılıçdaroğlu and denounced the march as “unlawful,” saying that “the streets are not the place to look for justice.” On July 8, however, Yıldırım was conceding that “it is possible to look for justice on the streets, but let’s stop calling July 15 a ‘controlled coup.’” 

That was a reference to Kılıçdaroğlu’s claim that after learning that the illegal network of U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen was committing a military coup to overthrow the government and close parliament, the government did not act with enough speed, with the ulterior motive of making political use of the coup attempt later.

This is a delicate issue, as Erdoğan and Yıldırım are placing utmost importance on the ceremonies marking the first anniversary of the coup attempt on July 15. The coup was foiled by the resistance of the president, the government, the parliament, the people on the streets and the vast majority of loyal army and police personnel who did not take part in the coup attempt.

Erdoğan last week blasted the march as being “in line” with the July 15 coup attempt. “They had their F-16s and tanks, and these people are walking for the same purpose” he said. In response, Kılıçdaroğlu said “we are not harming anyone; we are just walking peacefully.” As it was clear that the march was peaceful, Erdoğan did not repeat his line of attack very much. Comparing the march to the coup attempt did not find much of an echo in society and the AK Parti realized through polls that there were also complaints about the justice system from within its own constituency.

The march has also started to change the CHP, the oldest party in Turkey, which founded the Turkish Republic and was headed by the hero of the Independence War, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The CHP, especially in the West, has often been perceived as statist and pro-establishment, despite adopting a social democratic rhetoric. 

The march has posed a challenge for the CHP organization. As their 69-year-old chairman was walking almost 20 kilometers per day, breaking the 1930 record of Gandhi’s Salt March in India, members of parliament had no choice but to adapt. They are now debating what kind of methods they can develop to embrace people from beyond their apparent current 25 percent limit. It has been observed in both national and international media that the thousands of people who have joined Kılıçdaroğlu’s march were not only coming from the CHP’s grassroots; it has been a diverse political get-together.

Twenty-five days ago, there were not many international media outlets interested in what the CHP has to say. Today, there is an awareness that something else is going on in Turkey. Kılıçdaroğlu’s article in the New York Times could well be considered more successful than the government’s efforts so far to explain the evil nature of the Gülenist network that masterminded the July 2016 coup attempt.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic not to use CHP flags or slogans has also worked well. The march organizers have stressed that only the Turkish flag, placards bearing the writing “Justice,” and the slogan “Rights, Law, Justice” should be used. As a result, people from different political tendencies have generally not felt alienated from the march.

The rally in Istanbul on July 9 was the first such large mass event by a center-left leader in Turkey in many years, perhaps since the June 3, 1977 rally of the late Bülent Ecevit in Istanbul.

The march has started to change Kılıçdaroğlu as well. He started his justice march as CHP chairman but ended it as its leader, and now seems to have the potential to become Turkey’s opposition leader.