Turkish Democracy Again at a Crossroads

Turkish Democracy Again at a Crossroads

While Turkish citizens are trying to cope with Covid-19, the government took the opportunity to further its agenda. In an unprecedented move, the Turkish government replaced Boğaziçi University’s director with Melih Bulu, a non-faculty member at the university and a former politician under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

Ongoing Tensions

On January 1, 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan installed a new director of Boğaziçi University: Melih Bulu, a non-faculty member who had not won any election within the university for the position. This has sparked protests within the faculty and student body. In his new position, Bulu reshuffled the school’s internal affairs and set up two new faculties within the university, the Communications and Law faculties; an attempt, with the approval of Erdogan, to staff the university with those loyal to Erdogan and the party. At the same time, Erdogan opened new and closed faculties while also appointing 11 directors at other universities. Those students who protested sent an open letter to the government through social media calling for Bulu’s resignation and for the Bogazici University to have the freedom to elect its own director. Hundreds of peaceful protestors have been arrested, questioned and released, and students worldwide have conducted their own protests in solidarity. Academics worldwide have signed letters of opposition towards the decision, and different groups within Turkey as well as famous musicians have become involved in the protests defending democratic values guaranteed by the constitution and calling for the government to back off. The situation has created a serious response within Turkey, the largest since the attempted coup in 2016.

In an attempt to frame the situation so that his regime is not perceived as aggressive, Erdogan is fueling conspiracy theories stating that terrorist groups are provoking the protests. In addition, he is accusing Ayşe Buğra, a female emeritus professor at Boğaziçi University of acting as a puppet of investor and philanthropist George Soros. Buğra is married to Osman Kavala who has been in prison since 2017 on “baseless, politically motived” charges, who Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights have called to be released. Homophobic comments by Erdogan’s officials have also been made towards the protestors, garnering backlash from the US, UN, and EU.

The current conflict is consistent with the broader trend of increasing authoritarian rule imposed on the public. Critics may argue that perhaps the government has support for this action, but Aljazeera has reported that MetroPoll’s research has found that more than half of party voters object to political appointees as directors of universities; there is division within the party towards how this fiasco is being handled. Children of the Justice and Development Party politicians are part of those protesting as well as students of more secular backgrounds. Just under 70% of the population is against this violation inflicted by the government.

What’s Different this Time?

Boğaziçi University is possibly the best university in Turkey. It is world renowned with Erasmus program university partners such as Science Po and the University of Edinburgh; it is one of the few educational places left within the country that fosters and encourages liberal free-thinkers. The assault on liberal democratic values by the government is not something new, but the manner in which it has chosen to interfere with an institution such as Boğaziçi is. For the past ten years the government has been funding and facilitating the opening of Imam Hatip schools, high schools which focus on religious teachings rather than courses on math and science. The Ministry of National Education allocated $1.7 billion to these schools, and only around 109 million to non-religious high schools with the number of Imam Hatip religious schools increasing over the years leading to the increase in the number of students who attend religious schools by more than 19 times over the past 15 years while regular public schools are becoming underfunded. It has been argued that the government is ultimately investing towards creating a generation of citizens who are less educated and therefore would not be in a position to question their leaders. Interfering in the management of Boğaziçi University appears to be another item on the checklist to check off in order to accomplish this goal.

Turkey’s Future

Behind the aggression, the actions the government is currently taking does appear to be in line with their long-term approach towards education. The manner in which the police have approached peaceful protestors is also in line with how protesters have been approached in the past. The level of international opposition towards government intervention does not appear to have an impact on the decision-making either. The current leadership in Turkey seems adamant not to change course for the time being even though allies such as the US have stated they are concerned about the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that has seeped into the situation. Through these actions, the Turkish government is losing its image as a reliable partner to Western allies, furthering itself from upholding democratic Western ideals, and undermining its own supposed attempts to strengthen ties with the US. It is likely that these latest actions will lead to more brain drain, more protests, and in the end, worsening instability in Turkey.

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

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