CHP turns ‘No’ campaign into ‘Justice’ movement in Turkey

CHP turns ‘No’ campaign into ‘Justice’ movement in Turkey

On April 16, 51.4 percent of the Turkish electorate voted in favor of a package of constitutional amendments that introduced an executive presidential system, in a drastic change to the country’s nearly century-old government system.

On May 21, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected as the chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), marking the beginning of a new era in Turkish politics, in line with the amended constitution.

On June 14, an Istanbul court arrested Istanbul deputy Enis Berberoğlu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), on charges of espionage and of leaking the state’s confidential documents to daily Cumhuriyet, which reported the National Intelligence Agency’s transport of weapons to Syrian rebels.

Berberoğlu thus became the first main opposition lawmaker to be jailed in Turkey, at a time when more than a dozen pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmakers have already been in prison for months.

It should be noted that in the spring of 2016, parliament voted to strip lawmakers facing criminal investigation at that time of their parliamentary immunity, in a move that was primarily targeted at HDP lawmakers.

Since then, two HDP co-leaders - Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ - as well as more than a dozen party lawmakers have been thrown into jail, causing the party to lose its influence and place in Turkish politics. For many, the move was aimed at removing an obstacle to Erdoğan’s ambition to increase his power, further cementing his right-wing alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

There are reasonable questions about whether the outcome of the April 16 referendum could have been different if the HDP had been able to freely and efficiently campaign against constitutional amendments and if its co-leaders and lawmakers were free.

This question leads this column to ask whether the arrest of CHP MP Berberoğlu is part of a long-term political plan to weaken the main opposition party institutionally as a whole and to tarnish its image. Some pro-government newspapers have long been attacking CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu over alleged links to what prosecutors call the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ), accusing him of being in close cooperation with coup plotters for some time.

Another aspect of this arrest is its timing, which highlights two different processes. First, Kılıçdaroğlu has not stopped describing the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt as a “controlled coup,” despite strongly worded criticisms from the AKP and the MHP. Second, he has also continued his meetings with the shareholders of the April 16 referendum “No” campaign, in an obvious attempt to maintain the unity of this block until the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.  

In one sense, Berberoğlu’s arrest could be a reaction against the CHP leader’s continued efforts to corner the AKP-MHP duo over the coup attempt and to keep the “No” campaign united.

Some CHP officials are concerned that Berberoğlu’s arrest may be just the beginning of a new campaign against the party, with fabricated evidence of its links to FETÖ members.

It is perhaps because of this that the CHP has opted to stage a very visible and public reaction against the arrest, with Kılıçdaroğlu initiating a “Justice march” from Ankara to Istanbul. Kılıçdaroğlu’s strategy is to unite all those who have complaints about rising injustice in Turkey, under the title of “Justice,” and thus to add another element to the “No” campaign.

With around a month to go until the first anniversary of the July 15 coup attempt, which will witness week-long ceremonies and events across the country, the CHP’s march to Istanbul signals yet another politically hot summer for Turkey.