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Turkey’s Justice March Lights a Fire, but Keeping it Burning will be Difficult

By Abraham Thicke  

Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu’s justice march ended on July 9th in Istanbul with a speech that attracted a crowd estimated at between 200,000 and more than 1 million. Kiliçdaroğlu’s message, not to mention his stamina, struck a chord with millions. However, the prospects of the justice march having an enduring impact on Turkish politics are debatable.

Some have taken a hopeful view. Veteran Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar wrote,

‘Nobody has any doubt that in the wake of the Justice March, Turkey will be a different place. The political landscape will be compelled to change. It may no longer be considered by outsiders as the personal property and political playground of Erdogan, a hopeless case drifting further into autocracy, bordering on a totalitarian state.’

Similar sentiments have been echoed by many experienced observers. But maintaining the energy the march has fostered and using it to change Turkey’s political system will not be easy.

To illustrate the difficulties it is instructive to recall the Gezi Park protests of 2013, another recent example of a challenge to Turkey’s political status quo. Like the justice march, the Gezi Park protests harnessed widespread popular discontent with the Turkish regime. Ultimately though, they failed to achieve their aims and arguably accelerated Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism.

Key reasons for the long-term failure of the Gezi protest movement include; the protesters’ inability to maintain a united front or to gain the sympathies of more than a small fraction of the regime’s support base, the regime’s control of the media and, finally, the regime’s willingness to resort to draconian measures to quell the protests.

Maintaining the momentum created by Kiliçdaroğlu’s justice march faces almost exactly the same challenges the Gezi protests failed to surmount.

An uneasy coalition

It is clear that around half of Turks dislike President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and oppose his regime. However, this opposition comprises numerous factions that agree on little else. In an effort to garner the support for his cause, Kiliçdaroğlu, who is head of the CHP (Turkey’s main opposition party), stripped himself of his usual political divestments and marched carrying a placard on which was written a single word, ‘Justice’. This was effective for the duration of the march. But, given the deep divisions within the opposition, it is unclear how the support can be maintained long term.

For example, amongst those supporting the march were Turkish nationalists unhappy with collusion between the MHP, the party that traditionally represents them, and the regime. Representatives of the Kurdish focussed HDP party also expressed support for the march. These two groups are bitterly opposed on almost all issues. For HDP supporters any call for justice should include the many HDP politicians and activists imprisoned on trumped-up charges. MHP supporters, by contrast, would have no qualms about the incineration, let alone incarceration, of such people.

In the speech he gave at the conclusion of the march, Kiliçdaroğlu spoke carefully in order not to alienate either group. Whilst not directly mentioning the plight of imprisoned HDP members, and thus not antagonizing nationalists, he did at least manage to call for the release of all imprisoned parliamentarians, thereby providing encouragement to HDP supporters.

Kiliçdaroğlu managed to paper over the cracks on that occasion, but it is unclear how he, or anyone else, can keep the disparate groups on board long enough to threaten the regime.

Regime supporters largely unmoved

Related to this, whilst Kiliçdaroğlu might, however fleetingly, have managed to unite a large portion of the opposition, it is not clear that his justice much made much impression on the nearly 50% of the population who support Erdoğan and his AK party. Although there is considerable discontent within the ranks of AK party supporters, including an acceptance of deep problems within the judicial system, this does not automatically translate in regime supporters abandoning ship.

However, any political movement that aspires to bring change to Turkey can only do so by stripping supporters away from the regime. In recent times, only two movements have appeared capable of doing this; the Kurdish focussed HDP and nationalist MHP, both of which appeal to completely different constituencies within the AK party — largely explaining recent efforts by Erdoğan’s regime to destroy the HDP and castrate the MHP.

Regime response

That the justice march was allowed to proceed largely unmolested by a regime notorious for its intolerance of opposition was seen by many as an encouraging sign. Some suggested the lack of interference pointed to weaknesses within the regime, others that it indicated the reawakening of a sense of political responsibility.

The reality is probably less encouraging for the regime’s opponents.

Erdoğan and his acolytes in the AK party and the media slavishly maintain the charade of democracy. This is important, as it provides the regime with a veneer of legitimacy. Were Erdoğan to publicly admit what is obvious to everyone else, support for the regime would be reduced. Consequently, the regime must constantly balance maintaining the charade of democracy with its own narrow, undemocratic interests.

In the case of the justice march, it may be inferred that the decision not to interfere stemmed partly from the desire to reinforce the illusion of democracy.

Regime decision makers were also likely influenced by two other considerations. First they may have concluded, as is argued above, that any broad based opposition emerging from the march was likely to be short-lived owing to divisions within the opposition.

Linked to this, they may have feared any physical intervention would merely reinforce the perceptions that led to the march gaining such widespread support. This is turn could have triggered wider and more threatening protests.

This is not to say that the regime made no attempts to interfere with the march. Regime officials and media organs followed their usual playbook; equating those who offered their support with terrorists, claiming the march was the product of a global conspiracy to destroy Turkey and using the spectre of chaos to frighten any would be defectors back into the ranks.

It is also likely that the regime will take action in the future against those groups that supported the march, particularly the main opposition CHP which constitutes the largest single opposition. If recent history is anything to go by, the regime will pause until the energy generated by the march has dissipated and then pick off the opposing groups (or what remains of them following years of regime depredations) one by one.

* * *

The justice march has, for the first time in recent years, seen Turkish opposition groups, rather than the regime setting the agenda. However, keeping the momentum going, let alone translating it into real political change appears difficult.

One challenge is uniting the fragmented opposition into a block large and durable enough to challenge the regime. Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu appears incapable of doing this. His association with the CHP makes it unlikely that he can ever gain the confidence of either conservative Sunni Muslims or Kurds, since both groups have a long-standing animosity towards the CHP and those associated with its Kemalist ideology. Any movement that seeks the challenge the regime must gain support from at least one of these blocks.

It is difficult to think of any current Turkish political figure capable of doing this. One of Erdoğan’s most remarkable achievements during his rise to one man rule was the support he gained from both these groups. Although Erdoğan still commands a large following, his injustices and excesses, coupled with the ever more obvious deterioration of social and political conditions years have tainted him irrevocably.

Should such a figure arise, which is not impossible, they must then overcome the second daunting challenge. This will inevitably involve Erdoğan’s regime making a concerted effort to destroy them.  The nub of this issue is that the regime demands its opponents act within the framework of democracy, while the regime itself operates well outside democratic standards in suppressing its opponents, regardless of their stripe.

The consequence of this is that the regime has effectively insulated itself from any democratic challenge to its power. This again does not auger well for the prospect of any lasting change coming from the justice march, which was firmly anchored within in the framework of democracy. It also explains why the regime is defined by a constant fear of being overthrown by undemocratic means. Having shut off the democratic avenue it now lives in fear of the monster it has created.

Kiliçdaroğlu and his justice march may have lit a fire, but that is not so difficult in a country that has suffered years of drought. The apparently insurmountable difficulties lie is keeping it burning without deviating from democratic principles.

Perhaps, in fact, conditions are not now ripe for lasting change. The regime, though rotten, still maintains a strong facade. Barring a sudden and dramatic change of circumstances, such as a severe economic crisis, it is hard to see how widespread public discontent can dislodge it. It is also difficult to see how even the emergence of a charismatic leader capable of uniting the opposition could bring about change for the better. Any such figure would soon end up in jail, or worse, and their most likely effect would simply be to provide yet another illustration of the regime’s authoritarian instincts.


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