Turkey’s main opposition leader warned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday that the whole country has a “thirst for justice”, opening an unprecedented four-day meeting protesting alleged violations under his rule.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), is hoping the “justice congress” in the western Canakkale region will keep up the momentum of a month-long march highlighting judicial abuses in Turkey amid the crackdown that followed last year’s failed coup.
In a mass rally at the opposite eastern end of the country, meanwhile, Erdogan compared the defeat of the July 15, 2016, coup attempt to key events in Turkish history, including a 1071 triumph by Turkic tribes over the Byzantines in Anatolia.
Political jousting is already heating up in Turkey even two years before the next elections, with Kilicdaroglu accusing the Turkish strongman of behaving like a tyrant, and Erdogan not giving any quarter.
“Eighty million have a thirst for justice,” Kilicdaroglu said, referring to Turkey’s population.
“It is my duty to seek justice. It is my duty to stand by the innocent and be against tyrants,” he told the gathering of about 10,000 people.
‘The last straw’
More than 50,000 people have been arrested under the state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt, and almost three times that number have been dismissed from their jobs, including teachers, judges, soldiers and police officers.
This summer Kilicdaroglu walked 450 kilometres (280 miles) from Istanbul to Ankara to protest against the sentencing of one of his MPs, Enis Berberoglu, to 25 years in jail for leaking classified information to an opposition newspaper.
Under the simple slogan “Justice”, the march culminated in a huge rally in Istanbul last month that attracted hundreds of thousands, the biggest event staged by Erdogan’s critics in years.
Kilicdaroglu condemned the crackdown as a “civilian coup” and said that the jailing of Berberoglu “became the last straw.”
Referring to the jailing of journalists after the coup bid, Kilicdaroglu said: “You cannot talk about law, rights and justice in a country where more than 150 journalists are in prison.”
In a relaxed atmosphere, supporters pitched tents under shady woods for the four-day congress, which will have sessions on different kinds of rights abuses.
“I hope the congress will help raise awareness for a justice which does not exist in Turkey right now,” said Kismet Seyhan Aydin, from the Aegean city of Izmir, a CHP stronghold.
“I believe it will be a new start for the justice to be restored,” she added.
‘Game is the same’
Erdogan won an April referendum on bolstering his powers but Turkey is already in the throes of what appears to be a long election campaign, heading to November 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections.
The president, who is already signalling he will stand for another term, has urged the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to get in better shape for the election fight.
At the rally in the eastern Mus province, Erdogan compared the defeat of the coup to historical events including the defeat by Seljuk Turks of the Byzantines in the 1071 Battle of Malazgirt.
He said that Turkey was facing a similar struggle not just against the coup plotters but against outlawed Kurdish militants and the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
“The game is the same, the aim the same. Only the script, the extras are different,” Erdogan said, speaking on the 946th anniversary of the Battle of Malazgirt.
He was surrounded by men dressed in period costume as Seljuk fighters holding spears, wearing chain mail and boasting impressive handlebar moustaches.
In a sign of the rancour between Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu, a photo depicting the CHP leader wearing a white undershirt while dining in a trailer during the justice march drew a sharp response from Erdogan.
The mildly spoken Kilicdaroglu is sometimes compared by supporters to the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, and Erdogan took particular offence at a newspaper headline describing him as “citizen Kemal”.
Kilicdaroglu responded that Erdogan needed to address the “country’s problems” instead of “bothering with my vest from morning to evening”.