The start of Turkey’s hot summer?

July 13, 2017

John Monroe explains the backdrop to last weekend's mass demonstration in Istanbul.

AN IMMENSE crowd of as many as 2 million people rallied in Istanbul on July 9 to protest the authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It was the latest sign that Turkey's angry discontent cannot be crushed out by the relentless crackdown of Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

The regime has used last July's botched coup attempt as justification for intensifying a campaign of repression that has been developing for several years. Since last July, Turkish courts have processed more than 168,000 cases of people linked to the takeover attempt--at least 100,000 of them remain in custody, according to the government. More than 103,000 state employees have been fired and some 33,000 suspended. Around 150 media outlets are shut down.

But the signs of struggle are multiplying in Turkey--with last weekend's rally providing confirmation that even more people have gone over into active opposition against the regime.

THE ISTANBUL rally was the culmination of a nearly month-long "March for Justice" that began in the capital of Ankara on June 15 and proceeded over 280 miles for the next 25 days under a blistering summer sun. The first 10 days of the march coincided with Ramadan, and many of the protesters marched without food and water during the day.

A mass march makes its way across Turkey to defy Erdoğan's authoritarian rule
A mass march makes its way across Turkey to defy Erdoğan's authoritarian rule

The march and rally was organized by the main opposition parties in Turkey, the centrist Republican People's Party (CHP) and the left-wing People's Democracy Party (HDP). While the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, put himself center stage, the massive show of dissent was only possible because of the participation of grassroots organizing, including 77 LGBTQ and women's organizations fighting to protect their basic rights.

The march was organized after a CHP member of parliament, Enis Berberoğlu, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for allegedly revealing state secrets. Berberoğlu is accused of leaking video footage to an opposition newspaper showing Turkish intelligence agents providing weapons to Islamist militants across the border in Syria.

The government has also convicted Judge Aydin Sefa Akay--who is also a judge for the United Nations war crimes tribunals in the Hague--of being a member of a "designated terrorist group."

Akay is accused of belonging to the Gülenist religious movement, which at one point was allied with its fellow Islamists of the AKP, but is now a bitter rival. Gülenist members of the military apparently organized the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Now, Akay will spend seven years in prison if his appeal fails.

But the worst repression doled out by the government has been directed against the left. The left-wing HDP has faced a brutal assault since its stunning showing in 2015 elections caused the AKP to lose its majority in parliament.

Since then, leaders of the HDP--whose main support comes from the oppressed Kurdish minority in Turkey, but which has a base among other minority groups and the left across Turkey--have been arrested on trumped-up terrorism charges, and the party's offices ransacked by AKP gangs. The predominantly Kurdish region in the southeast of the country has endured a military siege for over a year.

On June 5, the director for Amnesty international in Turkey was arrested, along with seven human rights activists and two international trainers. Dubbed the Istanbul 10, they are currently being held incommunicado. Groups around the world are calling for their immediate release.

Among the Istanbul 10 is Özlem Dalkıran, an activist with a long history of fighting for LGBTQ rights in Turkey and against Islamophobia in Britain. She is a member of the HDP and works with the Revolutionary Socialist Worker's Party (DSİP) and other radical organizations.

THE MARCH for Justice ended less than a week before the AKP regime is set to begin its commemoration of the attempted coup last July.

Many people in Turkey fear Erdoğan will use this as an opportunity to shore up his increasingly despised regime. Left-wing activists like Dalkıran could well face show trials so the AKP can make an example of those who resist and seek to empower oppressed people in Turkey.

Erdoğan won a victory in April by pushing through a referendum that grants enhanced powers to the executive branch. Set to take effect after the presidential election in 2019, the measure gives the office of the president the power to declare states of emergency, set the budget, appoint high-ranking government positions without veto, and even dissolve parliament.

But the margin of victory was much closer than Erdoğan had hoped, and there was evidence of blatant vote fraud, with the country's Supreme Electoral Commission making a last-minute rule change after voting began to allow the counting of up to 1.5 million disputed ballots.

Protests against the rigged referendum erupted that very night in Istanbul and other major cities, and continued for days afterward. "One favorite chant," reported, "was reportedly 'Başkanım değil!,' or 'Not my president'--a conscious reference to the protests against Donald Trump in the U.S. following his election in November."

There have been other protests before and since. In early July, police raided the homes of activists in Ankara involved in hunger strikes and other protests to demand their jobs back. Late last year, protesters mobilized to defend the HDP and to stand in solidarity with Syrian refugees by providing basic necessities at the Turkish-Syrian border. Other protests have been organized in defense of workers' rights, women's and LQBTQ issues, Kurdish self-determination and environmental protection.

Now the massive rally in Istanbul has taken the active opposition to a new level--and pushed the Erdoğan regime onto the defensive. Most official estimates put the rally at between 1.5 and 2 million people, but the Istanbul Governor's Office claimed that only 175,000 attended, citing the surface area of the venue as evidence.

That led the Istanbul office of the Chamber of Topographical Engineers to release precise estimates based on its calculation of the venue's surface area--which concluded that the rally was indeed between 1.5 and 2 million strong.

The March for Justice from Ankara to Istanbul and the immense July 9 rally showed the world that the Turkish people will not be silent in the face of brutality. Despite a yearlong state of emergency designed to break any resistance to the government, the fight for democracy and justice continues.

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