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Turkey's 'March for Justice': opposition calls for unity, reform

Following a 450-km march for justice, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces challenges in fostering unity to counter the ongoing purges and erosion of democratic institutions. Diego Cupolo reports from Istanbul.

Twenty-five days and 450 kilometers (280 miles) after starting a march for justice in Ankara, Turkey's capital city, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People's Party (CHP), called for unity among the country's opposition groups at a rally attended by more than 1.5 million disenchanted Turks in Istanbul.

Kilicdaroglu spoke at the march's end point, near Maltepe prison where one of his party's deputies is being held after receiving a 25-year jail sentence for allegedly leaking photos showing Turkish intelligence was shipping weapons to Syria. Tens of thousands of people joined Kilicdaroglu at the event, and throughout the march.

Though the ruling served as a catalyst for the march, which has since become the largest protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's post-coup purges, Kilicdaroglu told DW it was only the last straw that broke the proverbial camel's back, and that he was protesting against the countless injustices perpetrated on Turkish citizens under the government's ongoing crackdown on perceived dissent.

"Why did we march?" Kilicdaroglu said while addressing the rally. "We walked for the non-existent justice. We walked for the rights of the oppressed, for the imprisoned lawmakers, the jailed journalists... We walked for the academics who were thrown out of universities."

Kilicdaroglu in Istanbul (Diego Cupolo)

CHP leader Kilicdaroglu denounces human rights violations and ongoing purges during the Rally for Justice in Istanbul

Opposition gathers momentum

The challenge now, Kilicdaroglu said, is to forge an alliance between Erdogan's opponents spanning religious, ethnical and political ideologies that have long divided Turkey's left. He says he does not expect the task to be easy, but after leading a march that drew up to 50,000 followers in its final days, Kilicdaroglu said it was his duty be the opposition's voice after this spring's constitutional referendum, which consolidated governmental powers under Erdogan's presidency amid allegations of voter fraud.

When asked if the possible suspension of EU accession talks could have an impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) policies, Kilicdaroglu told DW the "decision will tear Turkey from the civilized world." Yet, at the same time, he said responses to political oppression must come from within Turkey, and that outside pressure may prove counterproductive.

"It will not have an impact," Kilicdaroglu said during an interview inside his caravan in Gebze. "On the contrary, [the involvement of the international community] will increase polarization and this will benefit of Erdogan's party."

Türkei, nach dem Marsch für die Gerechtigkeit fordert die türkische Opposition Einheit (Diego Cupolo)

More than one million people attended the Rally for Justice on Sunday, in the Maltepe district of Istanbul

Repealing Constitutional Reforms

After a recent survey showed that 70 percent of Turkish citizens have no faith in the nation's justice system, CHP Vice President Gursel Tekin said his party's main objective was to repeal the constitutional reforms passed during April's referendum. Tekin said Turkey's judiciary was no longer independent, as Erdogan now has the ability to appoint judges to the highest courts, and that CHP would work to put forward a constitution that represents the people.


"The constitution before the referendum was not a people's constitution because it was passed by a military dictatorship," Tekin told DW. "The new constitution is also not for the people because it was passed by a flawed referendum."

"We want to make a constitution that helps move Turkey towards a more progressive and democratic future, where all ethnic groups are represented," he added.

The government under Erdogan's leadership has long accused Kilicdaroglu of supporting terrorist groups through his protest. President Erdogan said that Kilicdaroglu was violating the law by attempting to influence the judiciary.

An Elite Party Takes the Streets

To foster such changes, CHP leaders said they would need support from a wide spectrum of opposition groups, some of which have been disenfranchised or ignored by the party in the past. CHP is the legacy of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and has long based itself on strict secularism and a singular Turkish identity - which has not always represented the nation's many minorities.

Such fractures with Turkey's multiethnic and pious populations have increasingly isolated the party, much to the advantage of Erdogan's AKP. Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at Illinois State University Yusuf Sarfati tweeted that it was yet to be seen if the reinvigorated spirit of the opposition had teeth.

Furkan Aksoy, 27, who participated in the march, said that the CHP's modernizing themes had backfired in the past: 

"The party has always looked down on people, made them feel uncivilized and ignorant. On the other hand, Erdogan directly tells his voters that he loves them. He puts them a pedestal and makes them feel special, and CHP lacks this direct connection with the population."

While not all protesters at the rally expressed support for CHP, many viewed the undertaking as a positive step for a party that has rarely engaged citizens on the street level.

Türkei, nach dem Marsch für die Gerechtigkeit fordert die türkische Opposition Einheit (Diego Cupolo)

Ihsan Eliacik, a progressive Islamic scholar who has supported acts of dissidence against Turkey’s government

Challenges in Unifying the Opposition

Ihsan Eliacik, a progressive Islamic scholar, said the role of religion could no longer be ignored in Turkish politics, and that segments of the nation's opposition would need to recalibrate their rapport with pious voters – many of whom are not necessarily conservative. In his recent talks with Kilicdaroglu, Eliacik said he noted significant changes in the CHP leader.

"[Kilicdaroglu] is experiencing a personal renaissance," Eliacik said. "When I see him, he is always full of new ideas and I'm sure he'll have an action plan soon."

"It will take a long time for secular and religious people to understand each other," he continued. "Right now, we are leaving seeds and I hope they will blossom some day."

In addition to pious voters, CHP leaders and followers will also need to reconsider relations with the nation's Kurds, which constitute about 20 percent of Turkey's population and much of the opposition to President Erdogan, said Mercan Gul, member of the Women's Assembly with the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).

Türkei, nach dem Marsch für die Gerechtigkeit fordert die türkische Opposition Einheit (Diego Cupolo)

Over the last three weeks, protesters marched 450-km from Turkey's capital, Ankara, to Istanbul in response to ongoing purges under Erdogan's leadership

Gul said her organization fights for women's rights for all Turkish citizens, but CHP voters have often been apprehensive about being affiliated with her cause due to the political risks of appearing sympathetic to more extreme Kurdish militant groups.

"We joined the march because we see every opportunity as a new hope even though, I don't want to say it, but we don't have hope for anything anymore," Gul said.

Overall, people attending Sunday's rally said they didn't expect immediate results following the march for justice, but viewed it as a necessary step for Turkey's opposition that will lead future actions to counter Erdogan's agenda. Kilicdaroglu, however, appeared more confident:

"No one should think the end of this march is the end. This march was our first step," Kilicdaroglu said.

"July 9 is a new step. July 9 is a new climate. July 9 is a new history."

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