ISTANBUL - On Day 20 of his "March for Justice" Kemal Kilicdaroglu still has a spring in his step. The 68-year-old leader of Turkey's Republican People’s Party (CHP) has often been criticized for being an ineffectual opposition party leader. Now, Kilicdaroglu is galvanizing opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his year-long crackdown on dissent following last July’s failed coup.
“This march has already made a difference, said Volkan Yosunlu, who like so many got up in the early hours of the morning to travel from Istanbul to join the march. “For 20 days, tens of thousands of people walking together proclaiming the same message of justice is a reflection of a growing awareness and something positive is really emerging out of this,” said Yosunlu.
Marchers' spirits high
"Adalet" means justice, and that is the simple message marchers carry on banners, placards and t-shirts. Marchers say they are trying to reach across the political divide bring attention to the thousands of people who have been jailed and lost jobs in Erdogan's post-coup crackdown.
"There are deputies arrested, there are many journalists arrested. Also the academics. Also the education system fell apart,” claims Zeynep Altiok CHP deputy leader as she walks towards Istanbul flanked by cheering fellow marchers. “The judiciary system is also very much under pressure. So all this together, from different levels of society everybody feels it for them right now, everybody feels for justice, everybody seeks for justice."
Erdogan blasts marchers
President Erdogan accuses the marchers of treason and of collaborating with terror groups.
"You are launching a march for terrorists and for their supporters,” Erdogan bellowed on Sunday. “You have never thought about marching against terrorist groups, you can convince no one that your aim is justice.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even suggested the march could be a second coup attempt against him.
March picks up steam
Despite such rhetoric the march goes on, and continues to pick up more supporters along the way. The growing success of the march is putting Erdogan in a difficult situation.
“There is really not much Erdogan can really do,” points out Semih Idiz political columnist of Al Monitor website. “He knows if he prevents it, then the issue grows even larger, the interest it attracts, would grow not just in Turkey but internationally. So he is in a dilemma here, no doubt about. It seems to be almost a prelude to something else. Now people don't know what this will be prelude too, but there is this feeling that will be a prelude of sorts to something else,” added Idiz.
Many passing cars and trucks sound car horns in support, while people line the road to applaud.
“People are really giving big support to us,” this woman marcher says, “They wave at us, they kiss us and wish us the best, they hug us with love, they get tears in their eyes. They say 'May god Help you.” She adds, "We have seen incredible support from the people. We got some negative reaction too, but mostly it was positive."
Erdogan still strong
Erdogan still enjoys considerable backing in the country. On the march route, his supporters blast his campaign song and display a four-finger sign, symbolizing support for the president.
Political divisions in Turkey will likely deepen as more people join the march. Kilicdarolgu worries about such tensions, but insists they are committed to peaceful resistance. “We have never been and we will never be in favor of violence. They tried to force us to show violent behaviors, they tried to provoke us, but we never, ever responded,” he said.
Kilicdaroglu is calling for greater police protection for the march. The march is scheduled to arrive Sunday in Istanbul.