Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a string of victories last month in his effort to consolidate power, including the lifting of parliamentary immunity, the ouster of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and his replacement by the yes-man Binali Yıldırım. The month of June, however, has dealt Turkey’s strongman a reversal of fortune. Just as the Turkish president was beginning to enjoy his near-total domination of Turkish politics, a wave of protests have spread like wildfire in Turkey’s high schools – a reminder that there is still life in Turkey’s flailing democracy.
Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) last year began an effort to hijack 44 of the country’s elite public schools that provide free education to a select group of high-achieving students admitted through a nationwide exam. In an attempt to manipulate the trademark meritocratic ethos and secular curriculum of these schools, the AKP started replacing experienced school principals with unqualified AKP loyalists.
Tensions quickly boiled over. Protests erupted on June 4 in Istanbul High School, ironically the alma mater of two of Turkey’s Islamist prime ministers, Necmettin Erbakan and Ahmet Davutoğlu. During the graduation ceremony, the senior class turned their backs to the school principal, and were joined by their applauding parents, forcing him to cut his address short. The students also issued a written declaration against the principal – notorious for sharing his pro-Erdoğan political views and anti-Semitic vitriol on social media.
Within two weeks, similar protests have spread to dozens of other elite public schools around the country. To date, a declaration by the union of high school students demanding secular education was signed by a total of 365 schools. The Turkish government’s attempts to suppress protests by disciplinary action, and even by sending anti-terror and riot police in the case of Samsun High School located on the AKP-stronghold Black Sea coast, have failed to halt the protests. In fact, parents have in some cases joined the student protests.
With concerns mounting that the student and parent unrest could spill over into a countrywide protest movement similar to the Gezi uprising of May 2013, Erdoğan was quick to respond, but not with promises of compromise. Rather, Erdoğan warned that “there are still people who haven’t learned their lesson,” and vowed that he will not allow “a new Gezi.”
Turkey’s graduating class of 18-year-olds all came of age under the AKP’s 14-year rule. They were indoctrinated by schools, Islamist NGOs, and government-controlled media. Yet, significant portions of the Turkish youth apparently refuse to submit to Erdoğan’s Islamist and authoritarian agenda. In a country where roughly half the population is under the age of 30, the future of Turkish democracy might ultimately be determined by the ability of the country’s opposition parties to tap into this generation’s discontent.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir