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.
In a world where prominent politicians who actually have something interesting and substantive to contribute to their craft are few and far between, Abdullah Gül – presently the 11th President of Turkey – stands out as an exception to this powerful rule. Arguably more than anyone else, Gül has done the most to remould the Islamist movement in Turkey from a heavily ideological and socially distant sect to a mainstream political grouping which has enjoyed considerable electoral success in the last decade or so. Internationally, he has gained a reputation for probity, and his exhortations to fellow Organisation of Islamic Cooperation members to drastically improve their governance, gender policies and education levels – all, critically, within the context of a spiritual framework that is at least nominally respected within that body – are a paradigm of intellectual honesty.
Presently, however, Abdullah Gül faces an enormous dilemma: the Justice and Development Party, of which he was a key founding member and which despite formally leaving in 2007 is still closely identified with, is facing a genuine existential crisis as significant allegations of gross financial and legal corruption – which first began to gain traction last summer – threaten to turn Turkish politics upside down. With Gül’s second presidential term coming to an end later this year, he has three options before him if he wishes to continue his political career at the highest level – but none of them are perfect:
1. Stand for President Again. The 2014 Turkish presidential elections will be the first in which the general public – as opposed to parliament – will elect a person to this office. Gül stands as good a chance as any of winning the contest; however, under Turkey’s 1982 constitution, the presidency is little more than a symbolic position with limited leverage, and while a popularly-elected president will probably assume greater powers, there is no precise idea as to what these might be.
2. Go Back to Parliament. For a long time it was assumed that following the conclusion of his second term as President of Turkey, Gül would rejoin his former party and continue his work in the capacity of prime minister. However, this risks a clash with the incumbent, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose popularity has plummeted in recent months to such an extent that it is difficult to see him realistically winning a presidential election. Given that Erdoğan has had the best part of seven years at the helm of the AKP, any attempts by Gül to get a serious foothold in his old home could be over before they have begun.
3. Start a New Party? The sheer scale of the corruption allegations means that the AKP – for the first time in its history – is not merely a controversial brand, but quite possibly a toxic one. Queries over millions of dollars being stashed in shoeboxes and the accumulation of vast amounts of money by senior politicians have already forced an unprecedented wave of resignations and have shattered what is left of the AKP’s ‘good governance’ image; the estimated seven million new voters aged between 18 and 23 who are being urged to cast their vote by the Oy Ver (‘Vote’) campaign are hardly likely to be overly-impressed by recent events. As arduous a task as this may be for somehow who is now a senior politician, Gül might be advised to start all over again with a new, centrist political initiative.