For anyone with even a passing interest in political science, Turkey has long been a rich source of material for serious contemplation. However, the result of the Istanbul mayoralty contest in the 2019 Turkish local elections – a narrow win for the Nation Alliance candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu – may yet be recorded as one of the most remarkable global political developments of the twenty-first century to date. It potentially heralds nothing less than the emergence of an extraordinarily sophisticated voting public – an entity which has been created in no small measure by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan may seem like an unlikely author of this particular chapter of democratic evolution, but close examinations of his actions reveal an historical trajectory that – with hindsight – appears designed to make politics interesting again. This trajectory has five stages:
- Great Governance. It may seem unthinkable now, but not so long ago Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a figure from near the periphery of the Turkish political scene. Essentially, he was perceived by the establishment of the 1990s as a ‘deplorable’ who possessed a dangerous gift for reaching out beyond his natural constituencies of the urban poor and various shades of neo-Islamists. Accordingly, Erdoğan’s rise to power was fiercely resisted by the system; nevertheless, he transcended their limitations, culminating in his nascent AKP political movement sweeping into office towards the end of 2002.
- Destroy to Build. Having shown up the propaganda of one establishment – an unthinkingly laicist one – for being fundamentally vacuous, Erdoğan then set about dismantling this establishment’s structures. In particular, his courageous neutralising of the military in the context of civilian affairs provided some much-needed breathing space; further liberalisation of the economy – a process begun in the 1980s under his loose spiritual predecessor Turgut Özal – helped imbue Turkish society with a more international orientation.
- Counterproductive Consolidation. With economic success and relative political stability being repeatedly rewarded at the polls, Erdoğan began to act like a statesman enamoured with his own hype; step-by-step, power was centralised, with the vast new presidential palace complex constructed in Ankara’s Beştepe neighbourhood a giant physical manifestation of a deeper malaise. Unquestioning loyalty became the supreme virtue as a new iteration of a very old form of political organisation took hold.
- Staring in the Mirror. Perhaps the most obvious problem with the architecture of single-man rule – at least from the perspective of the person gripping the levers of power – is that when the permanent human invariability of things going wrong rears its ugly head, there is but one prime candidate to pin the blame on. With some pathos, Erdoğan has resorted to further command-and-control-style centralisation at a time when a cooler tactician would seek to deliberately devolve power away from himself.
- Children of the Revolution. The great paradox is that large sections of the Turkish public – much like the Erdoğan of the turn of the millennium – have learnt to see straight through previously dominant state-authored, corporation-disseminated narratives. Political infomercials on free-to-air television channels – even when broadcast wall-to-wall – simply do not have the effect that they once did, and the election of İmamoğlu illustrates that this perspicacity traverses traditional ideological and religious lines. Ironically, through trying to superimpose the ‘solutions’ of the 1980s onto the extraordinarily complex landscape of the 2010s, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent his nation’s political evolution into warp drive mode; unprecedentedly rerunning elections is only going to speed this process up yet further.
With the recent election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan – one of the world’s most brilliant albeit increasingly controversial political populists – to the presidency of Turkey, we at Mediolana feel it an opportune moment to survey what the first Erdoğan term (2014-2019) could mean for education companies with a stake in the increasingly valuable Turkish market. Three points in particular stand out:
- More ‘Crazy Projects’. Erdogan is known for his love of the Really Big Undertakings, such as the intercontinental Marmaray rail line which links Asia and Europe and which was inaugurated and completed during his tenure as prime minister. In the education sector, the the FATIH or Movement to Increase Opportunities and Technology project, which is already well underway, will see tablet computers issued to every student in Turkey from grades 5 to 12. Providers of large-scale, capital- and technology-intensive products and services will continue to benefit from this approach.
- Developmental Emphasis. The ruling Justice and Development Party, of which Erdogan is likely to remain de facto head despite his officially neutral presidential position, has very much placed the emphasis on economic development in recent years. This is likely to accelerate the percentage of the population who are at least nominal members of Turkey’s middle-class, meaning that the education sector as a whole is likely to benefit. New universities have been springing up like mushrooms after a summer storm since the 1990s; this trend should intensify.
- Arbitrary State? Education companies looking to expand their presence in Turkey should be aware that some local education providers – particularly those in the dershane or cram school industry – are facing a bleak future as the government has promised to make these illegal, despite both the vital role they play in augmenting the largely sub-standard Turkish schooling system and significant public opposition to their closure. An Erdogan presidency could make an already centralised state more powerful and less responsive to property rights and the rule of law. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that the presidency in Turkey under the current 1982 constitution is fundamentally not an executive position, so some of the more grandiose predictions could unravel with surprising ease.