ISTANBUL - Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is voicing alarm its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu could face prosecution and jail in an ongoing crackdown in Turkey, which has seen more than a dozen parliament deputies jailed.
“There is a big plot against the CHP,” warned Bulent Tezcan in an interview Monday with Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper, “Any steps taken against the main opposition party may open an era where the ruling party would not be able to have their way in peace,” added Tezcan.
Tezcan’s comments follows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's suggestion Kilicadaroglu could be implicated in an ongoing espionage investigation into the publishing of a newspaper story linking Erdogan’s AKP government to arms shipments to Syrian rebels. “Don’t get surprised if Kilicdaroglu’s is linked to the issue,” Erdogan said in a speech Sunday.
Kilicdaroglu's close ally and parliamentary deputy Enis Berberoglu was jailed June for 25 years for writing the arms story. The jailing of Berberoglu was the trigger for Kilicdaroglu launching his 25 day “Justice March” from the capital Ankara to Turkey’s largest city Istanbul. The march drew tens of thousands of supporters culminating in a rally drawing over a million people.
Erdogan who until recently dismissed Kilicdaroglu as a political no hoper, is now targeting the main opposition leader. July’s commemorations marking the defeat of last year’s coup attempt saw the president alleging Kilicdaroglu’s involvement with the coup plotters.
“Erdogan is reacting to this [Kilicdaroglu] threat, as he perceives it. We are two years away from general elections and presidential elections and he sees that the playing field is not as smooth and as clear as he would like it,” observes Semih Idiz political columnist of the Al Monitor website, “So we can expect in the coming days that he [Erdogan] will ratchet up his rhetoric against the main opposition leader. But it is inconceivable he [Kilicdaroglu] would be put in prison. I think you would have a block uniting, that Erdogan would not want to uniting,” Idiz added.
Under emergency rule introduced after the failed coup, HDP party co-leader’s Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas have been jailed on terrorism charges. Nine other deputes of Turkey’s second-largest opposition party are also in jail, with further prosecutions looming.
“When it comes to rhetoric, it is very seldom, he [Erdogan] really means what it says. So when it comes to Kilicdarolgu he may face prosecution,” warns Political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “By doing so, if it happens, President Erdogan shows how he is strong to his constituency. That he is even capable of putting in jail the president of the party, which is after all, is the party of Ataturk. Symbolically its very, very strong.”
A potential heavy price
The founder of the Turkish Secular Mustafa Kemal Ataturk formed the CHP in 1919. But Erdogan could pay a heavy price if Kilicdarolgu is prosecuted. “If you start persecuting that person, then his leadership qualities will increase in the eyes of many and diverse community in Turkey,” points out columnist Idiz, noting that in Turkey the underdog invariably resonates with the electorate. “Now whether the AKP wants to go in that direction, well it may try, but it will be hard one for it to swallow. Don't forget he [Erdogan] himself built a career on his unjust, and it was unjust, imprisonment.”
During a crackdown inspired by Turkey’s generals against Islamic groups, Erdogan was jailed for four months in 1999 for sedition, for reciting a poem at a political rally. Erdogan went on to lead his AKP three years later.
But political scientist Aktar suggests the Turkey of today is very different from 20 years ago,
"Six million voters have elected scores of HDP deputies, and the top management of the party and the MP’s and the co- presidents of the party are in jail, and there is no reaction. So I think it will be the same for CHP, people will protest, but full stop. I mean they will let it go. I think everyone is trying to survive with this regime.” said Aktar.
The president and his government insist any decision on the prosecution of Kilicdaroglu is strictly a matter for prosecutors and the courts. But with Erdogan showing no signs of easing up his rhetoric against Kilicdaroglu, all sides are likely to be weighing up the consequences of such a prosecution.