Hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Istanbul Sunday in the biggest show of opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s yearlong crackdown, which opponents say has transformed Turkey into a dictatorship.
The huge rally in Istanbul’s Maltepe Square was the dramatic culmination of opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s “Justice March” – a 25-day, 425-kilometer trek from Ankara to Istanbul – a protest at the post-coup clampdown by Erdoğan’s ruling AK party. Kilicdaroglu’s march gathered increasing support as it progressed from people from across the political spectrum unhappy with the government’s purge of perceived opponents since last year’s failed military coup attempt.
“We will be breaking down the walls of fear,” Kilicdaroglu, head of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), told the crowd, adding, “The era we live in is a dictatorship.”
Turkey has been in a state of emergency since the July 15 coup attempt, and the government has carried out a wide-ranging purge of civil institutions in the year since, resulting in the arrests of about 50,000 people and the suspensions of almost 150,000 state employees. These have included teachers, police, soldiers, and judges accused of being against the government.
In April, Erdoğan consolidated his position even further by narrowly winning a referendum that gave the president even greater powers. The vote was controversial, with international monitors saying it was conducted on an uneven playing field. Critics like Kilicdaroglu accuse Erdoğan of using the pretext of the failed coup to effectively carry out a second coup and grab more control.
Sunday’s demonstration protesting the crackdown – which some estimates say drew up to a million people – was the largest yet, and the biggest anti-government rally in Turkey since Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests in 2013.
Fadi Hakura, head of the Turkey program at Chatham House, told VICE News that Kilicdaroglu had succeeded in drawing broad support from across society by presenting the movement as a non-partisan demonstration against Erdoğan’s excesses.
“The protests have simply had one slogan: justice,” he said. “It has attracted support across the political spectrum, from the conservative and religious to more secular and liberal people.”
Hakura added that getting the support of more conservative, religious people was a significant achievement for Kilicdaroglu – whose party was traditionally seen as an elitist, secularist institution – and showed the growing public discontent with Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, even among his party’s presumed base.
It remains to be seen where the movement goes to from here. Kilicdaroglu vowed the march was only the “the first step,” and that opposition to Erdoğan’s rule needs to take place in the streets, since the ruling powers had effectively neutered parliament, the media, and the courts. “There is only a single place for our demand for justice, and that is the streets,” he said.
Erdoğan has criticized that approach, and, in a typical tactic, accused the marchers of “acting with terrorist organizations and the forces inciting them against our country.” But critically, the Turkish government, known for its hard-line approach to dissent, did not attempt to block Sunday’s protest.
“I think the government understood the major public relations disaster that would [create],” said Hakura.