At least 100,000 people took to the streets of Istanbul on Sunday, the first sustained mass protest against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s year-long authoritarian crackdown in the wake of a failed coup last year.
The crowds, packed into a parade ground on the Asian side of city, were a show of force by the depleted opposition and led by the chairman of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) under a chant of “rights, law, justice”.
They demanded the lifting of the state of emergency that has allowed Mr Erdogan to rule by decree while purging tens of thousands of people from state jobs. They also called for the restoration of freedoms for the judiciary, which has been hobbled by the firing or jailing of thousand judges, and for the press, which operates under one of the most repressive climates in the world.
“Nobody should think this march is the last one. It’s the first step,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP leader. The CHP had been sidelined as Mr Erdogan consolidated control over the country.
The rally was the culmination of a 450km march from Ankara, the capital, to a prison in Istanbul where a CHP lawmaker is being held after being convicted of spying. The success of Mr Kilicdaroglu’s march has caught both him and Mr Erdogan by surprise. The president has fumed that the protesters are attempting to sway the judiciary and are supporting terrorists.
“The government appears a bit confused by this — on the one hand they are talking about how this is unnecessary, and how parliament is the right place to try and demand justice,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, who attended the rally. “On the other hand, they are cognisant of the fact that they can’t do much about it. They have tried to belittle it, discredit it, but it seems the march has captured the public fancy — the attempts to discredit it haven’t worked.”
Armed police and armoured cars have escorted Mr Kilicdaroglu throughout his 24-day journey and on Sunday 15,000 police were keeping watch. Mr Erdogan has previously used riot police to disperse organised protests, including the 2013 Gezi protests.
Sinan Aydin, 37, came with his wife and two daughters Yagmur and Damla, aged 12 and 7. He said that he was not frightened to bring them and did not anticipate problems with the police. “The government had to allow the rally to take place,” he said. “Otherwise they would face even bigger problems.”
The demands of the marchers are unlikely to be met. Mr Erdogan has repeatedly defended the Turkish judiciary as free and independent, even as prosecutors this week arrested human rights activists, including from Amnesty International, and he has pledged to keep the state of emergency in place as long as Turkey faces threats.
But Mr Kilicdaroglu and his allies hope that this protest will spark off a series of other actions, ratcheting up pressure on Mr Erdogan as he prepares for re-election in 2019.
“I am not expecting this walk to produce immediate results,” he said on Saturday, before the march ended. “But this is a beginning and there will be more to come. And I hope that, after a while, Turkish society will be given some more space to breathe.”
The outwardly non-partisan nature of the march has attracted support from members of the country’s fractured opposition, including from nationalist leader, Meral Aksener. “The fact that, despite the march, the Turkish people have yet to obtain the justice we yearn for is not because it was untimely or unsuccessful,” she tweeted to her 1.4m followers, “but rather a symptom of the desperate and dark situation that we find ourselves in.”
Ayhan, 40, who usually votes for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, a smaller opposition party, which has had at least 12 of its MPs jailed on charges of terrorism, was happy to join the CHP-led rally with his three-year-old son, despite the water cannon and hordes of riot police carrying shields.
“We are not frightened,” he said. “We have got used to this pressure.”
Mr Erdogan, who stands as protector of the country’s Islamic virtue and as the provider of opportunity and wealth for once-ignored Muslim voters, remains the most popular politician in the country and has increased his or his party’s share of the vote in every national election but one since 2003.
Hamza Araz, 26, watched through the window of his butcher’s shop as the marchers poured towards their destination. “The problem is that they only want justice for themselves,” said Mr Araz, a sporadic voter for the ruling AKP. “They oppose the headscarf, they oppose religious education. They don’t support the rights of conservative people.”