Turkey’s pro-secular, pro-European and social democratic main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (RPP – Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi in Turkish) is often criticized for being too harsh on secularism as well as acting in an elitist manner against the pious masses. However, the party’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (69) is a man of the people, a humble leader who wants to bring his party closer to the masses and empatize with ordinary people. Coming from an Alawite (Alevi) family, Kılıçdaroğlu successfully increased his party’s votes from 20 % to 25 %, but seems to fail in recent years in reaching higher votes. Kılıçdaroğlu, few days ago, upon the arrestation of his party member and deputy Enis Berberoğlu (former editor-in-chief of the Hürriyet newspaper and a well-known journalist in Turkey), decided to start a 15 days of “justice march”, a long walk from Ankara to Istanbul in order to show his reaction to increasing authoritarian practices of the Erdoğan government. This is a the first time in Turkish political history that a main opposition party’s deputy has been arrested in an ongoing crackdown. Thus, it is a dangerous and historic event that should be analyzed. So, in this short analysis, I will analyze the advantages and risks of RPP leader’s new strategy.
‘MIT Trucks’ Case and Berbeoğlu Crisis
Let us start with the pre-crisis period. The reason of the crisis is the 25 years imprisonment decision of a first-degree Turkish court for RPP deputy Enis Berberoğlu. Berberoğlu is a prominent liberal journalist in Turkey having a large network of international journalists. The reason for his imprisonment is leaking classified materials to the press. Openly speaking, Berbeoğlu was arrested because there was strong evidence against him about informing famous Turkish journalist and author Can Dündar about a secret weapons delivery organized by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) to Syria, a case known as the “MIT trucks” in Turkey. Turkish government showed mixed reactions against the crisis that emerged after Dündar’s news in pro-secular Cumhuriyet newspaper; they first denied the accusations, later said it was a humanitarian mission to Syria and finally claimed that the weapons were sent to Turkmen militia in Syria. Current Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Tuğrul Türkeş (son of former MHP-NAP leader Alparslan Türkeş), was then boldly claiming that the weapon delivery was not made for Turkmens, but now he seems quiet and obedient against Erdoğan. It is quite clear that some members of the opposition in Turkey and some countries that are rival to Turkey are trying to use this scandal as an evidence for their false claims about Turkey’s support to ISIS. It is no secret that Turkey has politically supported some moderate (Free Syrian Army-Özgür Suriye Ordusu) and radical Sunni rebel groups (Al Nusra Front) during the Syrian civil war (especially in the early phases of the war) similar to many Gulf and European countries as well as UK and USA against the mass killings and chemical attacks of the brutal Assad regime. It is well-known that Turkey even helped Gulf countries to send arms to Syrian opposition. Now, it seems like Turkey also actively engaged in weapon delivery to Sunni opposition in Syria. However, Turkey has never openly or secretly supported or engaged in trade relations with ISIS. American intelligence (CIA) also previously apologized from Turkish government for such allegations. Moreover, not a single piece of evidence against Turkey has provided so far for such accusations. Thus, Turkish government should not be accused of supporting ISIS unless strong evidence is provided. Of course, Turkey’s foreign policy towards Syria (especially Davutoğlu period) could and should be criticized. However, while doing this, everyone should remember that Turkey hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees (most of them Arabs) and this humanitarian stance has terribly affected Turkish economy in recent years. In other words, both sides of the coin should be looked at in judging Turkey’s Syria policy.
Kılıçdaroğlu’s ‘Justice March’ Strategy
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as a responsible Turkish statesman, in fact has never accused JDP (Justice and Development Party-AKP) government of supporting ISIS. In that sense, one might even claim that he is not very happy about Can Dündar’s news that put Turkey into a difficult position in international politics. But Kılıçdaroğlu is different from Erdoğan in a major way; he believes in the freedom of press and the freedom of opinion. Similar to Emile Zola’s libertarian approach in the unforgettable “J’accuse” article, he thinks that the freedom of opinion should be defended against opposing views and voices as well. Erdoğan on the other hand always forgets the value of liberty; it is quite strange that he survived a coup attempt last year thanks to social media which he wanted to restrict and ban previously.
RPP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s nickname is “Gandhi Kemal”, a reference to India’s legendary political and spiritual leader because of their similar physical appearance. Now, it seems like Kılıçdaroğlu is not only physically, but also politically (strategically) similar to Mahatma Gandhi since his method of long and peaceful protest walk is reminding Gandhi’s “salt march” strategy against British colonialism. Gandhi’s “satyagraha” method was quite succesful against the British colonialism with its peaceful ‘passive disobedience’ (also called as ‘civil disobedience’) protest strategy that attracted Indian people’s attention and united them against British forces. But whether Kılıçdaroğlu will achieve the same as Gandhi did is still very dubious. Kılıçdaroğlu’s aim here is simple: to attract Turkish people and the world’s attention to injustices taking place in Turkey and alarming them about increasing authoritarian methods of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kılıçdaroğlu’s protest walk for justice is also reminding Mao Zedong’s ‘long march’, an epic walk of patriotic communists that later made the revolution possible in China. In any case, Kılıçdaroğlu achieved to create a new positive atmosphere for the opposition in Turkey and achieved to get rid of the idleness and pessimism. So, his strategy was good in that sense.
However, Kılıçdaroğlu has some disadvantages as well. First of all, Turkish people are not Indian people of the 1950s and most of them are natural born Machiavelists since they prefer power instead of justice. Thus, it is not certain that Turkish people will care so much about the unjust imprisonment of a deputy and journalist. Secondly, Kılıçdaroğlu himself supported the lifting of parliamentary immunity few months ago and still defends this in accordance with his party programme. This is a very naive stance since Erdoğan does not hide that he wants an unchecked government and many of the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democracy Party) deputies were already imprisoned in Turkey including the party leader Selahattin Demirtaş after the removal of parliamentary immunity. Thus, some groups and people might not support Kılıçdaroğlu if they think that this protest march is organized for his own party’s interest and it is not a principle-based democratic positioning. Thirdly, for the large right-wing (Islamists and Turkish nationalists) bloc in Turkey, a political stance that will harm Turkish state in international diplomacy can still be considered as a taboo and Kılıçdaroğlu’s “justice march” might reduce his votes that reached 49 % in the last referendum about the Presidential system. It should not be forgotten that some Islamist groups and secular nationalists also supported him during the referendum and Kılıçdaroğlu nearly doubled his party’s votes in the referendum thanks to their support.
Although there are risks, Kılıçdaroğlu has to continue to walk and oppose; because otherwise, he cannot change the status quo in Turkey and might not even keep his seat as the party leader. For being a game-changer, he should use these crises for keeping his anti-Erdoğan bloc united and alive. Kılıçdaroğlu should also decide and announce soon whether he will be a Presidential candidate against Erdoğan or not in 2019. It is also very clear right now in Turkey that a democracy where the ruling leader and the governing party could not be changed democratically, people lose their confidence toward democracy and anti-democratic tendencies (coup plots, terrorism, organized crime etc.) increase. Lastly, I can conclude that the arrestation of opposition deputies in Turkey increase the authoritarianism perception of the Turkish government in the world and destabilizes Turkey both politically and economically.
Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 See; http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/two-journalists-arrested-for-story-on-intelligence-trucks-bound-for-syria.aspx?PageID=238&NID=91722&NewsCatID=339 and http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/11/151127_mit_tirlari_neler_olmustu.