ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) – Tens of thousands of Turkish citizens have marched an arduous 250 miles over three weeks for a protest in Istanbul on Sunday, to demand their government loosen its stranglehold on the country’s democracy.
The “March for Justice” has grown from a modest one-man protest by opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who vowed to walk from the capital, Ankara, to Istanbul after the imprisonment of one of his party’s MPs.
Kilicdaroglu has been joined by throngs of disaffected citizens along the way and expects a huge crowd to attend the rally this evening. They are directing their anger at one person in particular — their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Turkey has stopped being a democratic country. It has become beholden to one man,” Kilicdaroglu told CNN. “This we cannot accept.”
The rally comes almost a year after a failed military coup radically changed the country’s direction. Following the coup attempt, Erdogan and his government have clamped down on civil liberties across the country, gutted public institutions and universities, heavily restricted the media and ordered mass arrests of activists, journalists and the political opposition.
The country has remained in a state of emergency for almost a year now, giving the Erdogan-led government extraordinary powers to detain anyone it sees as oppositional.
Among the marchers is 62-year-old Refika Ozturk, a retired municipality worker who has been walking for 10 days.
“I’m marching for my rights, the law and justice. You can do something as hard as walking like this for so long when you believe in it, when it’s for a cause,” she said in Istanbul on Saturday, sitting on a grassy patch, exhausted, with her shoes off. She was with friends, all wearing T-shirts that read “justice” in Turkish.
Despite the fatigue, the final leg to Istanbul was festive, with bands playing along the way.
Turkish protesters have regularly clashed with security forces over the past year, but the march has been remarkably peaceful, with police securing the protest from outside threats.
But it is unclear whether that harmony will continue in Istanbul, a city at the heart of Turkish liberalism where rallies are now banned from the famous Taksim Square.
The long walk to Istanbul has been painstaking for many — two people have suffered cardiac arrests, one of whom has died, while others are finding the heat unbearable and are rushing for water and shade at every opportunity. On other days, torrential rain is the enemy.
But the protest is also a sign that Turkey remains staunchly divided. While the march has been peaceful and is being cheered on by onlookers, the President’s supporters are also turning out to watch the protests, chanting “Erdogan, Erdogan” in response to the marchers’ chants of “Rights, law, justice.”
Where supporters of the protest drive by and make the peace or victory sign, Erdogan supporters stop to flash the four-finger Rabia sign, originally used in support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood but since adopted by Erdogan’s fans.
This division has persisted in Turkey for some time. In April, Erdogan was granted sweeping new powers after narrowly winning a referendum that transferred powers from parliament to the executive branch of government. The presidency in Turkey is traditionally ceremonial, but Erdogan had taken the role to act as the nation’s leader and head of government. International monitors slammed the referendum for being conducted on an uneven playing field.
Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has tried to brand his protest as beyond politics. No political logos are on display and he has called for Turks of all political affiliations to join.
He began the walk when a CHP parliamentarian was sentenced to 25 years in jail for giving an opposition journalist video allegedly showing Turkey sending weapons into Syria.
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