Turkish citizens rallied in Istanbul on Sunday at the conclusion of the 250-mile “March for Justice” led by 68-year-old opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Some estimates put the size of the crowd at almost two million – unquestionably the largest protest in years against strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who rigged the country’s constitutional referendum in April in order to consolidate his one-man rule and extend his presidential term by another a decade. The Turkish opposition is demanding nothing less than a return to the rule of law in Turkey’s battered democracy. “We will revolt against injustice,” Kilicdaroglu exclaimed.
Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002. After crushing an attempted coup last summer, Erdogan arrested over fifty thousand citizens, purged over a hundred thousand civil servants, and led a witch hunt against media and academia.
As head of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) since 2010, Kilicdaroglu has had ample reason to take to Turkey’s streets. He could have called for a march when President Erdogan began to rule by decree after last summer’s coup attempt, jailing journalists and academics by the hundreds, or when Erdogan started arresting lawmakers from parliament’s third largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), calling them terrorists.
Kilicdaroglu seemed, until the last minute, reluctant to leave the narrow confines of Turkey’s rubber stamp parliament and take his 1.2 million members to streets. But the last straw was the arbitrary imprisonment of a CHP lawmaker for exposing Turkish intelligence’s illegal provision of arms to Syrian jihadis. By going after the CHP, the party that founded the modern Turkish republic and transitioned it to a multi-party democracy, Erdogan had taken it too far.
Facing widespread condemnation, Erdogan predictably tried to smear the march as an act of support for terrorists. Erdogan supporters mocked the crowds passing by – in once instance, dumping a truck-load of fertilizer in their path, and in another, by leaving bullets on the marchers’ route. Ahead of the Istanbul rally on Sunday, Erdogan trolls took to social media to discourage participation. Indeed, considering all efforts to demoralize the opposition – and the country’s “state of emergency” in place since last summer – Kilicdaroglu should be proud for attracting nearly two million protestors, and Erdogan should be ashamed by the magnitude of the outcry against his authoritarianism.
The dramatic conclusion of the March for Justice came days before the anniversary of the failed coup attempt that has become Erdogan’s pretext for crushing peaceful opponents and moving Turkey toward a dictatorship. The millions who defied the Turkish president and marched for justice show that Erdogan can no longer hide behind the failed putsch to justify his own power grab.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu.