‘The lone cry of millions of Turkish democrats’: Interview with Kader Sevinç

By Piero Castellano 

“The goal of the march is to galvanize the public in support of the high value of justice and to alert the government that the political price of manipulating the judiciary will be high and will not be tolerated by the people.”

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, march, Turkey, Istanbul, Justice, peace, AKP, protest, EU, democracy

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Turkey’s main opposition on the long march to Istanbul. Source: Balkan EU

The “March for Justice” led by main opposition party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is shaking the political scene in Turkey. The 69-year-old politician is marching the 420 Km from the country’s capital Ankara to Maltepe prison in Istanbul, in protest of the jailing of Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP and former journalist Enis Berberoğlu.

Kılıçdaroğlu has been derided as “Gandhi” since the march began on June 15, and more generally, for his soft stance on Erdogan’s authoritarian rise. However, the sight of an opposition politician marching with a placard reading “Adalet” (Justice) has attracted a wave of unexpected sympathy from across the political spectrum, in a country polarized to the extreme and shaken by a year of purges against academics, civil servants and the judiciary, and a prolonged state of emergency.

This uncharacteristic display of solidarity beyond the fault lines of a fragmented opposition could be a game changer on the road to the 2019 elections, which may seal the executive presidential reform and deliver near-absolute power to President Erdoğan.

The “March for Justice” is also attracting attention in Europe, where governments have been the targets of President Erdoğan’s ire and public opinion seems increasingly hostile towards Turkey in general and Erdoğan in particular. The CHP, which supports Turkey’s accession to the European Union has long complained that its concerns over the President’s authoritarian ambitions have been dismissed in Europe.

Kader Sevinç is the European Union representative of the CHP in Brussels and a presidency member of the Party of European Socialists (PES). As a prominent intellectual active in the social and political scene of Brussels, Ms. Sevinç has a privileged observation point to view the bumpy relationship of her country with Europe. Independent Turkey asked her to explain the meaning and the goals of the “March for Justice” and discuss the future of the country and the party.

InT: The March for Justice is arguably the first time since Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn that CHP has called on people to protest. But since 2010, there have been countless occasions when politics has interfered with justice in Turkey. So why Now?

K.S: The travesty of justice and its manipulation by ruling party politicians in Turkey, long a chronic problem, has recently exploded with the detention en masse of journalists and then peaked with the imprisonment of members of parliament, including last, a CHP deputy. The abuse of the judiciary by the ruling AKP for political ends, the CHP felt, was reaching a point of no return after the Constitutional referendum of 16 April. Saying “enough is enough”, the CHP singled out the issue of justice around which people from all strands of political thought would rally. The march, therefore, is not a CHP march; it is the march of citizens who are all seeking justice.

InT: Some observers, especially in the pro-government press, are evoking the apparent risk of a new wave of a street protests that would possibly be violently suppressed again. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly stated that the march is absolutely peaceful. But beside from pointing at the state of justice in Turkey, what are the goals of the “March”? What will happen once it will reach Maltepe prison?

K.S: The march is the peaceful exercise of a fundamental right (of assembly) enshrined in our Constitution.  Already in its 11th day (at the time of these answers), neither the march nor the ancillary demonstrations in support of it in different parts of the country have been marred by any violence and has in fact gathered momentum, despite threats from President Erdoğan and others in government.  One should not expect the AKP-led government to take immediate steps to reform the judiciary with a view to enhancing the timely delivery of justice for all citizens and make the judiciary truly independent, once the march ends. The goal of the march is to galvanize the public in support of the high value of justice and to alert the government that the political price of manipulating the judiciary will be high and will not be tolerated by the people. This is an application of soft power to persuade the government to restore justice in Turkey.

InT: The government is denouncing the march in many ways. President Erdoğan, who a few weeks ago claimed that jailed journalists are guilty of common crimes or supporting terrorism, denounced the initiative as an illegitimate interference on independent Judiciary. The minister of Justice has said that Kiliçdaroglu is “potentially committing a crime” for trying to influence judges and a deputy prime minister has accused the CHP of supporting Gülenists while the Prime Minister has chided Kılıçdaroğlu because they should be “marching against coups.” What will happen if the march is stopped by security forces?

K.S: The government is clearly unhappy and upset with the fact that the march has endured and is actually gathering strength. With each passing day, the government will run out of excuses to stop the march. The only danger is a planned and massive provocation that would provide a pretext to security forces to halt the march. Is this likely to happen? Probably not. Is it impossible that such a provocation could occur? No, it is not impossible. I think the government must exercise the utmost restraint not to interfere with the march and continue to take measures, as they have done so far, to make sure that the march proceeds peacefully without exposure to provocations. Acting otherwise would be an invitation to chaos and violence.

InT: Do you think the wave of support and sympathy that the march is drawing could lead to a more unified opposition, based also on the 49% of Turks who found common ground voting “No” in the constitutional referendum?

K.S: Yes, I think the march for justice will solidify the opposition across party lines. The CHP might be the main beneficiary. However, the greater goal is to unify all those supporting democracy, the rule of law and fundamental freedoms in Turkey and begin the journey of progress and justice with the elections in 2019.

InT: Is this march a new attempt to restore the ideological supremacy of CHP, the party founded by Atatürk or an opening to a wider part of Turkish society, appealing to the rule of law and democracy?

K.S: The march was initiated by CHP Leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu but it is not a CHP creation; it is the labor of the citizens of Turkey. One sure outcome of the march will be the transformation of the wider opposition front itself. The march should motivate and enable the party to connect with a greater majority of the people. This applies to all actors of the opposition.

InT: The jailing pending trial of Enis Berberoğlu and the rejection of his appeal has been shocking, especially for the long prison term requested, apparently disproportionate for a mere journalist scoop – also considering that the government maintains that the infamous MIT truck was carrying “humanitarian aid.” But it was not unpredictable, after the mass arrests of HDP politicians and the charges brought on many CHP MPs, including Kiliçdaroglu himself, which can be the prelude of trials and detentions for the main opposition parties politicians too. Many blame the CHP for voting to suppress parliamentary immunity, allowing the AKP to pass the constitutional amendment and on social media, the famous Niemöller’s aphorism has been openly used to criticize the CHP. What is your answer to these critics?

K.S: The CHP is against the use of parliamentary immunity as a protective shield for corrupt politicians but supports immunity of the chair. It is part of the CHP program, manifestos and the EU acquis. Despite the government’s multiple attempts of silencing the opposition through court cases by the politicized judiciary over the last 10 years, we always advocated that parliamentary immunity should be limited to freedom of expression under the Parliament’s roof. The lifting of parliamentary immunity must apply to all on a non-discriminatory basis including the corruption cases against the high-ranking ruling party politicians. The motive of charges against the CHP is very clear: to limit the freedom of expression of Members of Parliament in Turkey.

There has always been a widespread public demand to limit parliamentary immunity in Turkey, largely motivated by the perception of widespread corruption shielded by immunity. This perception is in fact confirmed by independent surveys on corruption in Turkey and it is at its peak in our country under AKP rule. The AKP has never been genuine on this subject, using court cases to blackmail main opposition.

We should also note that there was a cross-party consensus on limiting parliamentary immunity to “chair immunity”. I recall a proposal from then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu concerning this which was supported by all opposition parties, the CHP, HDP, and MHP in March 2016 .

Let me note that the AKP intended to make the lifting of MP’s immunity a flagship issue in the constitutional referendum campaign to conceal their authoritarian ambitions, such as full control over the judiciary. In my opinion, the epicentre of all anti-democratic developments in Turkey such as the imprisonment of opposition figures and journalists, the politicization of the judiciary and overall authoritarianism is corruption, and the insecurities of the ruling party leaders and politicians. We shouldn’t allow them to divert our attention somewhere else.

InT: Elements seen today as typical of populist politics, considered a danger to democracy in the EU and US, were overlooked in Turkey for years. Control over the media, attacks on separation of powers, bullying of independent press, character assassinations, political use of armies of internet trolls and appeals to the “people’s will” as seen during the Brexit campaign or the election of Donald Trump, have all been characteristic of the AKP era.

But while EU institutions are vocally denouncing the dangers of populist politics inside their bloc or in the US, they seem to consider Turkey, still a candidate country to EU accession, as a special case, even while condemning the erosion of Turkish democracy. Do you think that it is due to a misperception of Turkey’s reality or to political calculation?

K.S: The EU’s approach to Turkey has hardly ever been authentic or consistent in last 11 years. It has been more of an instrumental view of Turkey, putting specific EU interests above the condition of democracy in Turkey rather than a balanced and fair dealing in its relations with Turkey as a pluralistic society. Standing up against the dangers of populist politics at home, but not doing the same regarding Turkey points to the failure of Europe to understand that the primary references of democracy are and must be universal, not parochial.

We should be clear about the fact that the continuation of the blockage for the negotiation chapters on democracy and increasing absence of Europe in Turkey throughout last 11-12 years are also the root causes of today’s bitter picture. Therefore, the suspension of the EU accession is not a solution. More engagement with society for democracy and a European project would be a solution. European politicians should first make the right diagnosis of what happened then find the right remedy. It doesn’t work other way around and there is no simple solution to complex problem.

It is time for Europe to be visionary and better in promotion of democracy, European values. History will judge the EU by its European engagement and sincere actions today, not by weakly worded press statements from Brussels and other capitals for a country where there is no free press anymore.

InT: So far, what have been the reactions to this protest among officials of European institutions in Brussels?

K.S: The Justice march is certainly attracting a lot of attention in Europe and especially in Brussels. The main take is that the march is “a major progressive effort by the main opposition to protest the injustices of the Turkish judiciary system.”

In this connection, I must point out that the EU and member states have long failed to engage Turkey in matters of democracy and the rule of law. Even those chapters pertaining to justice have been blocked by the EU. Adding insult to injury, Turkey’s democrats and progressive forces have been left largely alone in their efforts to resist pressure from an increasingly authoritarian government. The march is in a sense the lone cry of the millions of Turkish democrats against oppression and the travesties of justice in Turkey.

Let’s not forget that Europe was praising the first set of constitutional amendments in 2010, while Turkey’s main opposition CHP and other democratic forces in the country were campaigning for “No”. Just to cite one example among many statements by EU officials, let me quote the then Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle who declared, “As we consistently said in the past months, these reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey’s efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria.” This totally misguided EU support for the death sentence of the separation of powers in Turkey reminds me of a wise quote from Star Wars: “this is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause!”

Be that as it may, the EU still has the chance to make an impact and an opportunity to use its best ”soft power” in support of the rule of law in Turkey. That is, it is high time for the EU to open negotiations on those chapters pertaining to the independence of the judiciary. The EU must make an unequivocal choice of supporting democracy and the rule of law in Turkey.

InT: Western media has often been accused by Turkish pro-government circles of being biased against the government and of giving disproportionate coverage to even minor protests to depict Erdoğan’s government as unpopular. What do you think of the coverage of the “March for Justice” in Western media?

K.S: Long marches have historically always attracted media attention. It is not easy for anyone, young or old, to march hundreds of kilometers for days at an end. It is undoubtedly an act of sacrifice, endurance and courage. The coverage in Western media of the march is acceptable. I would still suggest that it would be better if the media covered the march not just as an “event”, but as a product of deeper underlying issues of Turkish democracy. The march should be viewed as an opportunity to inform Western publics about what is at stake in Turkey.

InT: You are a prominent intellectual and a world-renowned poet. Your name is listed at #220 among the 250 world most influential women. I assume that your role in Brussels is not limited to represent a political party. Is there any special project that you consider to embody your mission in Europe?

K.S: As a young European and progressive Turks’ voice in Europe, I am committed to the European project and engagement with all citizens for the democratic process. I regret to see that the citizens are losing faith in democracy. Democracy is not all about ballot-box. In the 21st century, it is a citizen centered state of mind.

If democracy is to be rebuilt, it may become again vigorous and vibrant, it is necessary for politicians to be courageous, rational and innovative in defending and upgrading democratic values, the way making politics work for all citizens.

Our political system’s main elements have remained the same for the past 200 years and the citizens cannot be expected to be content by being passive recipients of this system’s decisions imposed on them. Times have changed, citizens’ expectations changed.

In the era of populism on rise, as democrats it is our duty to develop innovative solutions to overcome the crisis in democracy and mainstream politics worldwide. With this motive, I launched the “Democracy 4.0: Smart Democracy and Smart Citizenship” initiative in 2014.

Smart citizenship, new technologies and much more transparency-friendly legislative process can restore trust in politics. Citizens naturally expect easy to understand and easy to check facts. The new way of politics requires building the story together with citizens who share or tend to share the fundamental values and principles with the political parties and politicians.

As a European, a Turk, I see the “Justice March” in Turkey a first step of actions of “smart citizens” to build “smart democracy” in our country. At the end of this process, the democracy story we have been building together with our fellow citizens would be an important contribution to Europe, I truly believe that.

Kader Sevinç, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, march, Turkey, Istanbul, Justice, peace, AKP, protest, EU, democracy

Kader Sevinç on the March for Justice. Source: Kader Sevinç Instagram

Meanwhile, the March for Justice is on its 15th Day and the CHP warns of provocations. After the AKP estranged co-founder Fatma Bostan Unsal, AKP former MP Faruk Unsal and prominent conservative activist Cihangir Islam, former AKP minister Abdüllatif Şener and jurist İbrahim Kaboğlu announced their support, followed by iconic Kurdish politician Ahmet Türk.

At the end of 13th day, a truck dumped tons of manure near the site where marchers were camping in Duzce. The driver was found and fined by the police. And among the pro-government media frenzy to demean the March, a commentator tweeted a chilling “wake-up” call: “They call Kılıçdaroğlu ‘Gandhi.’ Remember, Gandhi ended up assassinated.”

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