BACKGROUND: On January 1, 2021, Erdoğan issued a presidential decree appointing 50-year-old Melih Bulu as rector of Boğaziçi, which is widely regarded as the most prestigious university in Turkey. Previously, Bulu had been serving as rector of Haliç University in Istanbul, a position to which Erdoğan had appointed him less than one year earlier. Prior to that, Bulu had been the founding rector of Istanbul’s İstinye University, a position to which Erdoğan had appointed him in 2016, the same year as Bulu became a full professor.
In contrast to the favor shown him by Erdoğan, Bulu has had a less than distinguished academic career. In common with other academics, bureaucrats and party officials singled out by Erdoğan for advancement, large sections of Bulu’s publications – including his doctoral thesis – have clearly been copied and pasted from the work of other authors without adequate attribution. However, Bulu has been considerably more diligent in demonstrating his commitment to Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In 2002 he was a founding member of the AKP’s branch in the Istanbul district of Sariyer. In 2009 he unsuccessfully applied to be the AKP’s candidate for mayor of the Istanbul district of Ataşehir. In 2015 he was similarly unsuccessful in his bid to be an AKP candidate for parliament.
In recent years, particularly since he concentrated virtually all political power in his own hands following the transition to an executive presidential system in July 2018, Erdoğan has accelerated his attempts to embed the AKP nomenklatura in the apparatus of state. Bulu was far from the first AKP loyalist to be named by Erdoğan as rector of a state-owned university. But his appointment to Boğaziçi was nevertheless something different.
Although it was not officially established until 1971, Boğaziçi’s history dates back to the mid-19th century and the foundation by the American missionary Cyrus Hamlin of what was originally only a high school. Today Boğaziçi receives more applications than any other university in Turkey and can take its pick from the 2.4 million students who take the university entrance examinations each year. Even as constraints outside its walls were tightened, its reputation had enabled Boğaziçi to continue to try to nurture a culture of pluralism and intellectual freedom. Not only are such values anathema to any authoritarian regime but, when combined with the university’s origins, for many in the AKP they reinforced the perception of Boğaziçi as an instrument of intellectual colonisation catering to Turkey’s “Westernized elite” – even though the university’s students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including both low-income groups and conservative families sincerely committed to the Islamic values that the AKP purports to uphold.
There is no indication that Erdoğan expected Bulu to implement any immediate radical changes at Boğaziçi. Instead, the initial goal appears to have been the political equivalent of scent-marking, similar to the July 2020 decision to convert Haghia Sophia into a mosque – an assertion of ownership through the “conquest” of a supposedly alien cultural presence. However, Boğaziçi’s students and academic staff responded by staging public protests against Bulu’s appointment, suspecting – almost certainly correctly – that he would eventually attempt to stifle academic freedom and bring the university under political control. Despite often freezing temperatures, through January and February, academic staff have maintained a silent vigil on the university campus, standing outside Bulu’s office with their backs turned, in a demonstration of their determination never to recognize his authority. While students who have called for Bulu’s resignation have been beaten, detained and arrested – including being seized at night from their apartments – by the police.
As the protests continued, on February 6, 2021, Erdoğan issued a new presidential decree creating 13 new faculties at nine universities. They included two at Boğaziçi, in Law and Communications, raising the number of faculties at the university from four to six. Erdoğan’s critics accused him of attempting to dilute the opposition to Bulu at Boğaziçi by creating positions that could be filled by AKP loyalists.
Regime supporters have also rallied to Bulu’s defense. On February 7, 2021, crime boss Alaattin Çakıcı – a personal associate of Bahçeli and an MHP stalwart, who has received multiple convictions for murder, including for ordering a successful hit on his ex-wife – published a handwritten letter to Bulu urging him not to resign.
IMPLICATIONS: In the years preceding the Gezi Park Protests, as he became increasingly confident that he no longer needed to fear a threat to his grip on power, Erdoğan began to shed the alliances of convenience he had formed to provide him with protection – including with Turkey’s naïve and tribalistic “liberals”, who shared his antipathy to the once powerful Turkish military, and with the Gülen Movement. But he retained the hope of expanding his popular support base with his aides predicting that he would soon secure 60 or 65 per cent of the vote.
The scale of the Gezi Park Protests thus came as a shock, prompting Erdoğan to intensify rather than relax his already growing authoritarianism. Instead of continuing to try to broaden his support base, Erdoğan now sought to deepen it. The rhetoric of hope with which he had beguiled voters during his early years in the office was replaced by that of fear. Erdoğan vigorously sought to inculcate a siege mentality amongst his supporters, portraying the Gezi Park Protests – and every perceived challenge to his authority that has occurred since, including the still largely unexplained failed coup attempt of July 2016 – as being part of a foreign plot to overthrow him.
At the time that the Gezi Park Protests broke, Erdoğan was already beginning to show signs of being consumed by the personality cult that he had allowed to develop around himself. In this context, the shifting of responsibility for his government’s failures – not least in the economy – probably also serves a psychological need. But his repeated vilification of his domestic critics and opponents as fifth columnists for foreign powers raised social tensions – initially solidifying Erdoğan’s support base while effectively making his retention of power dependent on being able to continue to pit one segment of Turkish society against another.
One of the advantages of imagined enemies is that they can never triumph. Indeed, it has become commonplace for Erdoğan’s supporters to cite his ability to resist “foreign conspiracies” to overthrow him as proof of his greatness as a leader. But what does not exist is by definition invisible -- and the unseen is often more frightening than the seen. As a result, fear and tension have come to permeate both sides of the political divide. Its critics and opponents fear the government, while many of its supporters – for all their frequent bravado – are constantly on the alert for the conspiracies and conspirators that may be lurking unseen in their midst. Yet fear and tension are exhausting and one of Turkey’s most striking features in recent years has been the widespread sense of fatigue.
In addition, there is growing evidence that Erdoğan’s adoption of a strategy of social division is becoming less effective. Opinion polls suggest that support for the AKP is in long-term decline. The majority even of the government’s supporters are now considerably more concerned by the deteriorating state of the economy than whether or not its opponents are in league with scheming foreign powers. In recent months, opinion polls have reported a sharp increase in the number of Turks – particularly in the low-income groups who form Erdoğan’s core support – who are struggling to meet even their basic needs.
By attacking the Boğaziçi protests and trying to incorporate them into what it has portrayed as part of a kulturkampf to protect “national values”, the Erdoğan regime has also publicized an issue on which it appears to have little public support. A poll by the Metropoll research company published on February 3, 2021, found that only 17.9 per cent of Turks believe that the president should appoint the rector of a university, while 73.0 thought that the rector should be chosen by the university’s own academic staff, and 9.1 were undecided or failed to respond. Remarkably, clear majorities of both AKP voters (55.1 per cent) and MHP voters (65.1 per cent) believed that academics should be able to choose their own rectors, while only 33.2 per cent and 29.5 per cent respectively thought that such appointments should be the prerogative of the president.
CONCLUSIONS: It has been many years since Erdoğan could be confident of winning a fair election – namely one in which not only the integrity of the electoral process is protected but in which the majority of voters are allowed sufficient access to information to allow them to make informed choices. In addition, the abrupt resignation in November 2020 of his son-in-law, former Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, has raised the stakes. In the months before his departure, Erdoğan had begun to publicly groom Albayrak as his heir apparent – a ploy which, if successful, would have provided Erdoğan and his inner circle with the assurance of protection once he left office. Albayrak’s departure has left Erdoğan exposed. The second most powerful person in Turkey, and currently Erdoğan’s most likely successor from within the AKP, is Soylu. But relations between Soylu and Erdoğan are strained – and relations between Soylu and Erdoğan’s inner circle even more so.
If he chooses to deploy them, Erdoğan undoubtedly has the resources – not least in his control over the country’s police and its highly politicized judicial system – to crush the protests at Boğaziçi. But, by highlighting a practice which appears to have little public support, Erdoğan’s recourse to the politics of fear and social division in order to stamp his authority on the country’s most prestigious university threatens to be counterproductive. The opinion polls suggest that they are also failing in their long-term objective of consolidating his support base. Instead, it is gradually eroding – and the constant barrage of public harangues, conspiracy theories and McCarthyite witch-hunts is exacerbating already widespread societal fatigue.
Gareth Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center