The crowd stretched for as far as the eye could see: the biggest flag-waving Turkish opposition rally in many years.
They were Turks angry at the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Turks joyful that their call for “justice” may be heard; Turks hopeful that the promises of opposition unity may be real.
The mass rally on July 9 marked the culmination of a 25-day, 280-mile opposition march from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul that attracted tens of thousands of citizens. They flocked to the opposition’s banners despite being pilloried as akin to “terrorists” and dangerous provocateurs by Mr. Erdoğan and the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Yet, as emotional as the mass event was, it is still far from clear whether the political spectacle will inspire a credible resurgence of Turkey’s fractured opposition.
This weekend marks the anniversary of last summer’s failed coup, which Erdoğan’s critics say he has exploited to fortify his own power and crack down on a range of political opponents. Speaking Thursday, the president highlighted the “epic dimension” of the coup attempt, saying Turkey learned in those dramatic hours “that we will either die or exist,” and declaring: “We are leaving a very important legacy to future generations."
The anniversary is also a poignant reminder that the opposition has been on a long losing streak, including, most recently and significantly, its failure this spring to block Erdoğan from narrowly winning a referendum granting him expanded, near-unassailable presidential powers.
“While [the rally] is undoubtedly a huge act of courage and defiance, I want to caution against seeing this as a major game changer,” says Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Istanbul.
“The 50 percent is united on anti-Erdoğan sentiment, and united in their opposition to authoritarianism, but not in a common vision for Turkey,” says Ms. Aydıntaşbaş. The opposition task “is to use the hope and energy” created by the march and rally to lay out a plan to unify disparate factions.
Notably missing, she says, is a charismatic figure who can unite the opposition.
“Turkey needs a Turkish Macron, and it’s not out there yet,” says Aydıntaşbaş, referring to French President Emmanuel Macron, who despite being a political unknown a year ago, recently upset a crowded field of seasoned candidates. “This was a good step, but I haven’t got the feeling there is a day-after scenario yet.”
Anniversary of coup
The opposition show of strength comes as Erdoğan and the AKP are preparing elaborate ceremonies to mark the July 15 anniversary of the attempted coup as a day when 246 Turkish “martyrs” died, they say, “defending democracy.”
But that event also yielded a continuing state of emergency, a fierce crackdown on civil society, the arrests of 50,000 people, a purge of 140,000 teachers, soldiers, police, judges, and others, and a tighter grip by Erdoğan – all reasons such a broad spectrum of Turks took to the streets for the opposition march and rally.
The march was led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in the first sign of opposition life since the April referendum.
“The final day of the ‘justice march’ is a new beginning and a new step,” Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu boomed from the stage at the sea of supporters, who chanted “Rights, law, justice!”
“It’s not the end of a march…. It’s a new climate, a new history, a new birth,” he said. “We marched because we are against a one-man regime [and] because we are against terrorist organizations and because of the fact that the judiciary has been taken under the orders of politics.”
“Erdoğan is a dictator!” said one rally-goer amid the crowd, sweating under the hot summer sun, a white headband with the Turkish word for justice, adalet, across his forehead. Others were far less charitable about the man who has ruled Turkey with an increasingly tight grip since 2002.
Obstacles to opposition unity
But analysts say despite the unexpectedly popular stratagem of the march, there are immense obstacles to converting that rejuvenated energy into unity between the CHP, nationalists, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In an election two years ago, in a rare electoral setback for Erdoğan, the HDP exceeded for the first time the 10 percent threshold for representation in parliament. The party has been under especially sustained attack, with arrests of its leaders and lawmakers on terrorism charges, since fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants reignited in southeast Turkey in July 2015.
The HDP called on its supporters to join the rally for “social justice,” to “be in the field with all our power, to deepen the crack in the fascist-chauvinist bloc.”
Critics charge that Erdoğan and the AKP have used the coup, and the tools of the state of emergency, to consolidate their own power by jailing opponents and journalists and restricting opposition parties.
Kılıçdaroğlu derides the state of emergency as a second – successful – coup against the Turkish people.
Criticizing the march this week, Erdoğan invoked Muslim piety: “They could walk 450 kilometers for the terrorists, but could not take 4-1/2 minutes to read a fatiha [Quranic prayer] for the [July 15] martyrs?”
Erdoğan noted the demand of marchers to end the state of emergency, which has been extended repeatedly: “This job will end when it’s completely over,” he said.
Doubts about opposition
The scale of the march “was a key moment, but I think that one should be very realistic regarding what the opposition is capable of achieving in Turkey, because contrary to all the rhetoric, there is no opposition front in Turkey – it doesn’t exist,” says Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar with the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University.
“Will the opposition manage to gather its forces, especially including the Kurds? I have very serious doubts,” says Mr. Aktar. CHP voters “are historically anti-Kurdish, and it will take them another decade probably to understand that without due attention paid to the Kurdish issue there won’t be a political alternative to Mr. Erdoğan and the AKP.”
In a bid to broaden the appeal of the march and rally, CHP leaders ordered that only non-party banners be flown, include the national flag, the “justice” motto of the event, and portraits depicting the secular founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
“Maybe the best outcome of this ‘justice’ march was that people, after one year, are today more concerned about the consequences of the so-called coup, rather than the coup itself,” says Aktar. “People realize more and more it was a big, big game and the entire country is paying the price.”
'Not the same Turkey'
The CHP joined the AKP after the coup attempt in a sign of national unity, and supported national solidarity rallies that lasted across the country for a month. But the march began mid-June, the day after one senior CHP official was sentenced to 25 years in prison for leaking information to the media about the Turkish state providing weapons to Islamists fighting in Syria.
The fact it was led day after day in sweltering temperatures by the 68-year-old CHP chief, accused in the past of uninspired and ineffective leadership, “showed that nothing is impossible,” wrote columnist Semih İdiz in the Hürriyet Daily News.
“No one is expecting an overnight miracle to emerge from this march, [but] we are not the same Turkey as we were before it took place,” wrote Mr. İdiz. “Erdoğan and the AKP are no doubt sleeping a little less comfortably now, with presidential and parliamentary elections not so far away in 2019.”
Fractures in the opposition aside, the intense official reaction may meanwhile have as much to do with dissent within AKP’s own ranks, says Aydıntaşbaş from ECFR.
“This is what the AKP leadership fears the most, not so much what happens with the opposition, but what happens with their own constituents, the internal grumbling, the quiet resentment about what AKP has come to symbolize,” she says.
“This may not come out publicly, but in quiet corners of AKP, people are complaining, saying, ‘This is not what we set out for 14 years ago. We are jeopardizing our gains by becoming too authoritarian,’ ” Aydıntaşbaş says.