Addressing huge throngs of people at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, the leader of Turkey’s mainstream opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, issued a thunderous demand for an end to an ongoing government crackdown under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The rally represented the largest public display of opposition to the clampdown Erdogan's government since he survived a failed military coup attempt nearly a year ago. More than 47,000 people have been detained since the government suppressed the attempt seize power by a faction of the armed forces on July 15, 2016.
“This is the era of dictatorship. This is the era of 1940s Germany,” said Kilicdaroglu, addressing a huge throng of demonstrators at a parade grounds along the Sea of Marmara. “With this rally we witness that we are not alone. Each one of us represents hope,” he also said.
Kilicdaroglu spoke at the rally after walking about 280 miles from Ankara in protest of the crackdown which has lead to the arrest journalists, academics, and members of parliament. Kilicdaroglu set out from the capital on June 15, a day after a member of parliament from his Republican People’s Party (CHP) was arrested, joining at least 11 other opposition lawmakers who have been detained in recent months.
After marching through the Turkish countryside for more than three weeks, Kilicdaroglu arrived in Istanbul on Saturday leading a throng of thousands of protesters. The protest raised fears of a confrontation when the crowd arrived in the city, but there were no signs of violence. Police had provided security for Kilicdaroglu and the protesters during their long walk from Ankara. On Sunday, Kilicdaroglu chose to walk alone on the final stretch to the rally.
“'I reached the end of my walk, but this is not the end. It is the beginning of a new era,” he said, speaking to a cheering crowd that chanted “Hak, hukuk, adalet!” (Rights, law, justice!) Though it was organized by the CHP, the organizers of both the march and rally eschewed party insignia, instead distributing signs reading “adalet,” justice. The crowd waved Turkish flags.
Kilicdaroglu has been criticized in the past for failing to organize a credible opposition to the crackdown in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt. However, his march across the country captured a piece of Turkey’s national political conversation. The demonstration in Istanbul was a show of force for Turkey’s mainstream opposition, and CHP supporters were heavily represented in the crowd. The protest also attracted support from members of the broader Turkish public.
“I want justice for everyone in this country. I want justice for my children,” said Saime Zirik, 55, as she stood in in the afternoon sun awaiting Kilicdaroglu’s arrival. She said she had been unable to find work for five years.
A populist leader who has dominated Turkish politics for about 15 years, President Erdogan is a deeply polarizing figure, equally loved and hated by rival political camps within Turkey. In recent years, he has sidelined other leaders within his own party and moved to restrict political opponents. The coup attempt led to an acceleration of the clampdown, including the closure of dozens of news organizations and the firing of top military officers and tens of civil servants.
In April, Erdogan also won a disputed victory in a referendum on a constitutional overhaul to replace Turkey's parliamentary system of government with one dominated by a powerful presidency. The government argued the changes were needed to impose stability, while the opposition denounced it as a power grab. The vote itself was also marred by widespread claims of fraud. The referendum marked another step in a larger struggle over the future Turkey's democracy.
In his speech on Sunday, Kilicdaroglu issued a list of demands including freeing the judiciary from the influence of the ruling party, releasing journalists from prison, and greater prosperity for all Turkish citizens. He did not articulate a specific plan to achieve those goals, and even some of the protesters in the crowd expressed skepticism about whether the demonstration would result in concrete changes.
“Unless Erdogan says ‘yes,’ nothing will change in this country,” said a 60-year-old teacher from Istanbul who also stood in the crowd. She asked for her name to be withheld, for fear that she could lose her job for publicly criticizing the government.
The number of demonstrators at Sunday's rally was a matter of dispute, as CHP officials claimed that more than two million people attended the protest in Istanbul's suburban Maltepe district. The Istanbul regional government placed attendance at 175,000. Turkey's official Anadolu news agency reported that 15,000 police officers had been deployed to provide security.
Regardless of the turnout, some members of the opposition left the demonstration energized.
“I feel like I'm more hopeful for the future. I feel like a new person now,” said Fahri Gokdal, 61, a retired civil servant who came to the rally from the town of Burhaniye, about a five-hour drive south of Istanbul.