BACKGROUND: On July 16, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, began a “Walk for Justice” from the capital Ankara to Istanbul, after a CHP lawmaker was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for spying charges. Enis Berberoğlu, a former editor, was accused of having provided the opposition daily Cumhuriyet with video footage purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons and ammunition to Islamist rebels in Syria in late 2014. Cumhuriyet published the allegations in May 2015. An Istanbul court pronounced its sentence on July 14.
The CHP lawmaker was arrested and promptly dispatched to prison. The reaction from a shocked CHP leadership was equally – and unexpectedly – swift. Upon the news of the CHP lawmaker’s sentence and arrest, the party executive committee convened and took the unprecedented decision to “take to the street” in protest.
As he started on the 432 kilometer long walk from Ankara to Istanbul, accompanied by close family members – his wife, son and his daughter-in-law to be – the CHP leader stated that “We want justice for everyone.” The message is indeed abundantly clear: Kılıçdaroğlu walks carrying a placard with a single word printed on it: “Justice.” Leaving Ankara, he told journalists that “We don’t want journalists and lawmakers to be imprisoned in our country. We are facing a dictatorial regime. We don’t want to live in a country where there is no justice. We have had enough now.”
The march is scheduled to take twenty five days. After seven days, the marchers had traveled ninety-seven kilometers. CHP officials claim that two thousand marchers had joined the walk by July 21. That is not a staggering number of people, but the unexpected initiative of CHP has nonetheless caught the regime off-guard. President Erdoğan is apparently annoyed. He angrily alleged that the marchers violate the constitution, saying that they are showing disrespect for a court decision. Nonetheless, the walk has enjoyed police protection during its first week and there are no indications so far that the authorities are entertaining plans to disperse and arrest the marchers. Such action would be extremely risky for the regime; it would risk triggering upheaval, as happened after the police violently dispersed the Gezi Park protesters in Istanbul 2013, and create international attention, which the “Justice Walk” has not benefited from during its first week.
IMPLICATIONS: Justice is a concept that historically has a strong resonance in Turkish political culture. The popular legitimacy of the Ottoman sultans rested on the popular perception of their ability to dispense justice. In the context of modern Turkish politics, the concept has been successfully appropriated by conservatives: the leading right-wing party in the 1960s and 1970s was named the Justice Party, which was a well-understood reference to the unjust treatment of the leader of its predecessor, the Democrat Party, the conservative Adnan Menderes, who was hanged after he was overthrown in a coup in 1960. And neither was it a coincidence that the party that has ruled Turkey since 2002 was named the Justice and Development Party; with that choice of name, the founders of the AKP demonstrated that they claimed the mantle of the conservative political tradition that has dominated Turkish politics since the 1950s. Indeed, the unjustly treated Menderes is the political hero of Erdoğan.
The CHP leadership has made a doubly politically astute move by appropriating the concept of justice: using a concept that has traditionally been monopolized by the right opens up the possibility to make inroads in its electorate; and even more importantly, it speaks to a broad, varied constituency that has suffered from various kinds of unjust treatment at the hands of the AKP regime. On the seventh day of his walk, Kılıçdaroğlu was joined by a group of retired military officers who were victimized during the infamous Ergenekon trials; one of the participants is a brother of a former lieutenant-colonel who recently committed suicide when it became known that he was going to stand re-trial. The “Walk for Justice” has also been joined by trade union representatives and by relatives of the more than three hundred mine workers who were killed in Soma in 2014. While the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer show trials demonstrated that the AKP regime – and its allies at the time, the Gülenists – would go to any lengths to secure their hold on power, the mine disaster at Soma, which was caused by the criminal negligence of the mine company, and its aftermath – when Erdoğan’s bodyguards manhandled protesting workers – displayed what economic interests the authoritarian regime serves; the AKP regime has trampled on labor rights, and Turkey, not coincidentally, is second only to China in fatal workplace accidents.
But Kılıçdaroğlu’s claim that he “wants justice for everyone” suffers from a lack of credibility: the call for justice does not extend to the unjustly treated Kurdish lawmakers who have been imprisoned since last year. The march is supposed to end when it reaches the Maltepe prison in Istanbul where the recently incarcerated CHP lawmaker is being held. Asked if he intends to continue the walk on to Edirne further west, Kılıçdaroğlu answered “we have no such preparations.” Edirne is the location of the prison where Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been incarcerated since November 4, 2016. Kılıçdaroğlu is yet to demonstrate that he finds it equally unacceptable and unjust that Demirtaş – and other HDP lawmakers – are held in prison.
But that is not to be expected: it was Kılıçdaroğlu who enabled the passing of the law that in May 2016 lifted the immunity of the lawmakers. He instructed his party group to approve the joint proposal of the AKP and its ally the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), fully aware that it would open up for the arrests of Demirtaş and his colleagues. Anti-Kurdish Turkish nationalism runs strongly through CHP ranks and among its electoral base, and although Kılıçdaroğlu, himself a Kurd, is a moderate, he apparently feared that the CHP would become the target of accusations from AKP and MHP of abetting the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) if he did not approve the lifting of the immunity of lawmakers. The CHP foolishly ignored the warnings that it would be next in turn after the Kurdish movement had been dealt with. If, as it appears that it did, the CHP leadership assumed that the regime would not dare to touch them, history was forgotten: Kılıçdaroğlu would have done well to remember that Erdoğan’s hero, the authoritarian conservative Menderes, was preparing to imprison the lawmakers of the CHP toward the end of his rule.
For a politician who claims that he “wants justice for all,” the fitting end of his walk should obviously be the prison in Edirne, where Demirtaş is incarcerated. However, cold political reality dictates that the walk is not prolonged to Edirne prison. If Kılıçdaroğlu were to show such solidarity with the Kurds – which would have been highly inconsequential in the first place, given his own role in their imprisonment – it would in fact only make Erdoğan happy, who would portray Kılıçdaroğlu as the “friend of the PKK.” And with that accusation hanging over him, the CHP leader would never be able to mount an effective challenge to the AKP regime. He would lose large swathes of the CHP electorate to the MHP, Erdoğan’s ally.
CONCLUSIONS: The narrow result of the referendum in April showed that Erdoğan’s reelection as president in 2019 is not a foregone conclusion. Kılıçdaroğlu’sshould be seen in this light: with his call for justice, which is a concept and a call that resonates among vast swathes of the population, the CHP leader is positioning himself as the tribune of all those – the victims themselves and their families – who have suffered from the successive purges of the AKP regime, from Ergenekon and Sledgehammer to the post-coup purges since last year. The purges of the alleged Gülenists that have affected hundreds of thousands of people are having a destabilizing effect on the base of the regime, and the referendum showed that the conservative middle class support for Erdoğan is wavering.
Ideally, Turkey’s social democratic opposition party, the CHP, should have joined hands with the equally social democratic, pro-Kurdish HDP and taken aim at the social, economic and political injustices that right-wing authoritarianism in its different incarnations has perpetuated for decades. Full democracy is going to continue to elude Turkey until these structures are defied and dismantled. But it is also perfectly understandable that Kılıçdaroğlu has made it a priority that Erdoğan is not reelected in 2019 and is fashioning a strategy with this limited goal in mind. Although his call for “justice for all” suffers from a lack of credibility, as it does not include the Kurds, it may nonetheless prove to be the potentially most effective weapon anyone has come up with so far against Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is Editor of the Turkey Analyst
Picture credit: wikimedia.org accessed on June 22, 2017