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In Turkey, Anti-Government Protesters March From Ankara To Istanbul

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Thousands of Turks are on their way from their capital, Ankara, to Istanbul 250 miles away by foot. They are marching in protest. Patrick Kingsley, a reporter for The New York Times, has called this the first mass act of defiance to a political crackdown and purge by Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following a coup attempt last year.

Patrick Kingsley joins me now from Istanbul. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK KINGSLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, what is motivating this march?

KINGSLEY: Well, after last year's failed coup, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a crackdown quite reasonably on people they said were involved in the coup. But what's happened since is that crackdown has been used as a smokescreen to target most legitimate forms of opposition, and it's seen around 50,000 people arrested and in the region of 140,000 people fired or suspended from their jobs. And that's why the march is taking on this extraordinary, epic trudge 250 miles or so between Ankara and Istanbul.

SIEGEL: How many marchers do you figure there are, and who are they?

KINGSLEY: Well, they're escalating in number quite quickly. When I went with them last week, there was around a thousand. Since then, there seem to be, according to the most recent estimates, upwards of 10,000. And their expectation's that it could even double, triple or even more as the march approaches Istanbul, which is the country's largest city.

They're originally from one particular opposition party, the center-left CHP. But since they began, they've enlarged to include people from Islamist backgrounds and more nationalist backgrounds. The core is still from the CHP, but the numbers and the kinds of people are increasing day by day.

SIEGEL: Beyond increasing their numbers as they march to Istanbul, what do they specifically want to accomplish? What would be the response that they're seeking?

KINGSLEY: It's a good question because at the moment, they just say they want justice - adalet, the Turkish word for justice. It's not clear what they will do once they get to Istanbul. Are they going to set up camp and wait until everyone is released from prison who they feel shouldn't be released, or are they just going to disband? And that's one of the great unknowns.

We don't know how President Erdogan is going to react as they get close to Istanbul. Is he going to try and spray them with tear gas? Is he going to set the police against them? He hasn't done that yet. And what are the protesters going to do? Are they going to be happy just having done their march, or are they going to wait until something concrete happens? And neither side has really shown their cards.

SIEGEL: Given the atmosphere that you've described - the political atmosphere you've described in Turkey, when you met the marchers, were they concerned that this might result in their arrest or some kind of repercussions against them?

KINGSLEY: They are certainly aware of that. And one of the questions I asked the leader of the main opposition party who is leading this march, Kemal Kilicdaroglu - I said, are you prepared to be arrested? And he said words to the effect of, if there is a price to pay, we are prepared to pay it. And that's quite extraordinary from a man who has traditionally been perceived as taking the safe route and not trying to stir things up. Whether he means it I guess we'll see on Sunday when they approach Istanbul.

SIEGEL: That's Patrick Kingsley, Turkey bureau chief for The New York Times. He joined us via Skype from Istanbul in Turkey. Thanks for talking with us.

KINGSLEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.