Opinion |

'This Is 1940s Germany': Can Turkey's Revitalized anti-Erdogan Opposition Prevail?

This week, one million people in Istanbul demanded civil rights, law and justice. As Erdogan's purges intensify, can a fragmented opposition sustain that momentum?

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Supporters of main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu gather for a rally following the 425-kilometer "March for Justice" in Istanbul, July 9, 2017.
Supporters of main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu gather for a rally following the 425-kilometer "March for Justice" in Istanbul, July 9, 2017.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

"This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany."

Such explicit fighting talk directed against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rare these days in Turkey, not least in the heart of Istanbul. But they were the words spoken days ago by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the mostly secular center-left CHP party, at a huge rally rounding off a 25 day march through Turkey aimed at strengthening the democractic spirit in the country which has been under intensified assault for a year.

A year go, following the July 15 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s three main parties (excluding the mostly Kurdish leftist HDP party) came together at a massive rally held in Istanbul’s Yenikapi neighborhood. For Erdogan, having nationalist MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, and the main opposition leader, Kilicdaroglu, join the rally, together with his AKP party, seemed liked an impossible feat. Following the rally, a new term emerged on the Turkish political scene to describe this show of unusual unity: the "Spirit of Yenikapi."

However, this spirit was short-lived. With the government moving full steam ahead with its extensive purge, a clampdown that includes the arrest of critics of the government, such as journalists, academics and Members of Parliament, what seemed to some like a new dawn for Turkey, quickly turned into a nightmare for tens of thousands of people who have found themselves behind bars, not to mention the far greater numbers of family members affected.

Fast forward a year. Turkey’s second massive rally, termed the “Justice” rally, held in Maltepe (also in Istanbul), highlighted the failed spirit of Yenikapi. At this rally, over a million people joined Kilicdaroglu to chant in unison three words: Hak, Hukuk and Adalet: Rights, Law and Justice.

Never has Turkey seen such a huge and blatantly anti-Erdogan rally, nor has it seen Kilicdaroglu perform with such sharp, high caliber language to lash out at Erdogan, accusing him of implementing autocratic rule and using the attempted coup to enact a civil coup through the State of Emergency, introduced five days after, which has enabled the ongoing mass purges and arrests.

So how did Kilicdaroglu succeed in transforming himself from a predictable - and at times obedient - opposition leader to a level of popularity unprecedented since becoming party head in 2010?

The answer is by marching over 400 kilometers over 25 days from Ankara to Istanbul, and the massive rally for which he set the agenda. On the march he endured mountainous steep climbs, pouring rain, and burning summer heat, but endeared himself to many of those he passed. It not only didn’t exhaust the modest 69-year old politician, but he positively gained momentum with each passing step.

Supporters join Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the 24th day of his march towards Istanbul, waving placards with the word "Justice". July 8, 2017.Credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP

It wasn’t only admiration for his determination that boosted Kilicdaroglu’s success. The march functioned as a process of renewal; by removing himself from Ankara’s petty politics and parliamentary hallways, he was no longer a secondary figure, trailing behind Erdogan, but transformed into a real leader.

Over 25 days even groups who were initially reluctant joined in. Their differences with the CHP and its secular and Kemalist legacy quickly dissipated once it was made clear that no party or organization would march with their own banners. The march had one title and one title alone: justice for all those who have been wrongly sentenced to prison, serving time waiting for trials, or fired from their jobs.

So, where from here? Will the massive rally in Maltepe transform into a new movement for the return of law and an independent judiciary?

In the short term, no change is in sight, and the purges and arrests will continue. What better proof of this than this week’s arrest of Bogazici University professor Koray Caliskan, on charges of possible links to the Gulen movement (a claim that seems absurd on the surface, not only due to his past leftist politics but also due to his ties to the CHP).

On April 12, 2017, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a referendum meeting in Istanbul.Credit: Kayhan Ozer, AP/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo

Whether there’ll be a longer term effect depends mostly on if Kilicdaroglu can convince his party to keep building coalitions, to push beyond his electoral ceiling of around 25-30%. However, the time is ripe for this approach. If the opposition learned anything from last April’s constitutional referendum, that is only by finding common ground and rising above their differences can they defy the odds; true, the opposition lost the referendum, however the margin of Erdogan’s victory was small, and the opposition took all the major urban arenas, including Istanbul, once an Erdogan stronghold. Elections are due in 2019.

The CHP will need to reach out to conservative and more right-leaning voters, while continuing to develop a dialogue with new emerging voices, such as with Meral Aksener, who is set on establishing a new party in the near future together with other defectors from the ailing MHP. As for the Kurds, few expect Kilicdaroglu to get their votes, but the HDP’s participation in the march was a positive step forward; however, without a transformative initiative to end years of violence, it is highly unlikely the CHP can reach the level of optimism needed to make real change, something once offered by Erdogan and the AKP.

So, for now, it is hard to declare that the Maltepe Justice rally was a turning point, and better to echo Kilicdaroglu’s own words: that July 9, 2017 was only the beginning of a movement. For now, the spirt of Maltepe is very real; whether it awaits the same fate as the 2016 spirit of Yenikapi remains to be seen. Only time will tell, but the almost impossible weight of Turkey’s future is riding on it.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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