Turkey’s Lost Democracy And Hope of Justice March

CHP leader walks alone in Istanbul in the last phase of a long march from Ankara. Photo: Reuters

Turkish history is full of ironies. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP, came to power by promising to bring ‘justice’ and clean up Turkey’s corrupt old regime. At the beginning of AKP rule, Turkey was seen as a shining example of secular democracy in a Muslim country across the Islamic world but then it increasingly took an authoritarian turn.

During the first decade of AKP governance, Turkey achieved a remarkable rate of economic development, tackled ‘a state within a state’ (deep state) bureaucracy and clamped down on the military’s political power while engaging in a peace process with the Kurds.

In 2017, none of these achievements has been sustained. Turkey is no longer a country governed democratically by the rule of law. And the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016 led many to lose hope for a democratic future. The most recent mass protest, the opposition’s march for Justice (Adalet Yürüyüsü), however, revealed the existence of a popular resistance movement for democracy and justice in the country, as one of the marchers said: ‘We have lost democracy in our country and we want it back’.

The Turkish political landscape had been no stranger to military coups in the past but the shockwaves of the last year’s putsch were unprecedented. The putsch not only increased President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approval ratings at polls, but also enabled him to push through constitutional changes to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an executive presidency.

Mr. Erdogan has described these changes as essential to protect the country from shadowy forces within, such as the deep state and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, U.S.-based Turkish cleric (allegedly behind the putsch), as well as to ensure the unity of the Turkish nation against the external security threats of Islamic State jihadists and Kurdish separatist groups in the Middle East. In reality, the constitutional changes grant him absolute power through illiberal democracy and increasingly authoritarian nationalism.

The country is ruled by a state of emergency with an ongoing purge. Political and civil society groups are subjected to arbitrary arrests and dismissals every day. Around 50,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 140,000 have been fired from state offices, including the civil service, the judiciary, the military, media, and universities due to their perceived connections to the Gulen movement and/or their support for “terrorist activities.”

As this article is being written, 72 academics at the Bosporus and Medeniyet Universities have just been detained, adding to the long list of purged academics. There is no freedom of expression and press freedom. While dissident voices are silenced by the politics of fear, many critics of the regime have been imprisoned, including elected members of Parliament such as the leader of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been ineffective. Criticized for being part of the old secular establishment, it has consistently failed to get more than 25-30% of the vote and, until recently, has had little influence beyond the confines of Parliament building.

The most recent march for justice (#AdaletYuruyusu) has sparked the spirit of hope for the country’s opposition and its future. The rally started on 15 June 2017 in Guven Park in Ankara. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu called for a peaceful march to ‘revolt against injustice’. The breaking point was the arrest of one of CHP’s lawmakers, Enis Berberoglu, who has been accused of espionage for leaking documents proving that the government was providing arms to jihadists in Syria. The justice march ended after 25 days with a 280-mile (450km) long walk in Maltepe in Istanbul, near the prison where Mr. Berberoglu is jailed.

The justice march is by far the biggest peaceful movement after the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in June 2013. It united people of all ages and from walks of life, including seculars, Kemalists, and religious conservatives, who carried a mile-long Turkish flag in the highways and hills on the route between Ankara and Istanbul. They chanted for democracy, calling for ‘rights, law and justice’.

When the march began, the expectations were very low, but it surprisingly gained momentum, as manifested on its last day’s rally that lured over 1.5 million people to Istanbul. Marchers were inspired by the glimmer of hope and optimism to challenge Mr. Erdogan’s “new” Turkey. It was a popular demonstration by the opposition and signaled the beginning of a new strategy for the CHP. It has kindled hope and has had some unexpected outcomes.

The first important outcome of the justice march is the government’s reaction to the protestors. Citing the state of emergency, the government could have easily prohibit the justice march. Unlike the Gezi Park protests, the police and security forces escorted the marchers and the CHP leader without any interference. Both the government and opposition leaders managed to prevent a major confrontation and the march ended peacefully without any violence. However, some fear that this is not the end of arbitrary arrests and that the CHP leader and participants of the marches may face investigations in the coming days.

The second outcome is that the CHP as the main opposition moved from the narrow confines of Parliament to the streets, expanding its social reach. For instance, the post-march rally on Sunday, the 9th of July, was not only celebratory but was also used by Kilicdaroglu as a platform to declare his ‘justice call’ (Adalet Çağrısı): a call to end the state of emergency, protecting the independence of the judiciary, reinstating the positions of dissidents who have been unfairly dismissed or detained, and freeing of all imprisoned journalists.

The last but not the least important outcome is that the march united people in demanding the restoring a just and fair judicial system in Turkey. Their plea, however, went unheeded, failed to garner little attention in the pro-government media, and President Erdogan appeared unfazed.

According to Mr. Ergodan, Mr. Kilicdaroglu has stepped beyond the boundaries of political opposition and “was acting with terrorist organizations and the forces, inciting them against our country.” He also accused “the marchers of supporting terrorism.” Unsurprisingly, while international media had covered the rally on a daily basis, and foreign leaders, including leader of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, sent a message to the CHP leader, there was almost no coverage of the justice march on Turkish state television radio and pro-government newspapers.

Despite its unexpected positive outcomes, the justice march will not be enough to shift the balance of power in the Turkish political landscape. It is an unprecedented act of defiance against the undemocratic, unjust and unfair practices of Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey that has given the opposition a new voice. The marchers have rekindled the spirit of resistance and demanded the rule of law, sparking hope for a return to a secular and democratic republic governed by the rule of law, as envisioned by Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The key question is whether the opposition can sustain this momentum in the months ahead leading to the elections in 2019. For the organizers of the march and the marchers, the task now is channeling this momentum into an effective political strategy and movement if they want an alternative to the AKP and Mr. Erdogan’s rule.

Since 2013, President Erdogan has been strategically redefining his role as the one-man authority and making himself central to 21st century Turkey as Ataturk was in the 20th century. Mr. Erdogan has a vision for ‘new’ Turkey as declared in the AKP’s manifesto in 2012 titled the ‘Political Vision of AK Party for 2023’ (referring to the centenary year of the Turkish Republic).

The essence of this vision is that Mr. Erdogan wishes Turkey to celebrate its centenary in 2023 not as a secular democracy, but as an Islamic Republic. The justice march was a testimony that Ataturk’s secular democratic Republic has still strong supporters. Ataturk’s vision united the Turkish nation when the Islamic Ottoman Empire lay in ruins at the beginning of the 20th century, but Mr. Erdogan’s vision carries Turkey into the 21st century with a bitterly divided nation and a deeply polarized country.

Much is at stake under the one-man rule in the ‘new’ Turkey. In the coming months leading to the next elections, both his supporters and the opposition will have a chance to observe how Mr. Erdogan uses his extended powers and decide which vision they choose for Turkey’s future.