Mahatma Gandhi’s 24-day “Salt March” in 1930 mobilized hundreds of thousands of Indians in opposition to British colonial rule, laying the groundwork for their country’s eventual independence. Today, Turkey’s main opposition leader, Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is leading a “Justice March” from the capital Ankara to Istanbul to protest the policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Since Kilicdaroglu, who is called “Gandhi Kemal” for his striking resemblance to the father of modern India, started his march on June 15, thousands of Turks have joined the CHP leader.
Kilicdaroglu embarked on the march after a court slapped CHP parliament member Enis Berberoglu with a 25-year prison sentence. Berberoglu, the former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s highest circulation daily newspaper Hurriyet, is accused of passing on to Cumhuriyet newspaper images of Syria-bound trucks allegedly carrying weapons and ammunition to Syrian opposition groups in January 2014.
The images, which Cumhuriyet printed on May 29, 2015, with the headline, “These are the weapons that Erdogan said don’t exist,” were likely taken by public prosecutors and gendarmerie officers affiliated with the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s partnership with the Gulenists (who are now referred to as the “Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization" or FETO by many Turks) broke down in late 2013 and the two sides have been locked in a deadly fight to this day. Many Turks believe Gulenists organized and carried out the failed coup attempt last July.
The AKP is pessimistic about Kilicdaroglu’s protest march, partly because its leaders worry the march could gain popularity and weaken the ruling party. AKP leaders are trying to portray the CHP as doing FETO’s work in undermining Turkey.
At a June 26 rally in his hometown, Erzurum, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced Kilicdaroglu and exclaimed, “This march, to which the separatists and supporters of FETO give a standing ovation, is not a national march. … You have no place to go with separatists and [Gulenists].” Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has also criticized the CHP chairman for ostensibly helping Gulen’s case.
An even bigger danger for the AKP are the provocations and security risks facing “Gandhi Kemal.” Responding to the AKP and MHP leaders' claims equating his actions to those of the so-called FETO, some people have attempted to sabotage Kilicdaroglu’s march. A truck driver dumped fertilizer on the road Kilicdaroglu was supposed to take in the town of Duzce June 27.
One nightmare scenario is that if the CHP leader comes to harm, the AKP will receive the blame. A personable politician, Kilicdaroglu enjoys shaking hands and conversing with citizens and he has done much of it during the march. But when the crowd gets too large or excited, the 12 plainclothes police officers accompanying the CHP leader close around him in a tight protective ring.
Kilicdaroglu is aware of the risks. He has warned his supporters and fellow marchers against provocation several times, asking them not to respond to those who criticize the march.
But the big question is whether “Gandhi Kemal” could change Turkey’s troublesome trajectory either by boosting the CHP’s votes or by forcing Erdogan and the AKP to give up some of their more authoritarian policies.