BOSPORUS BLOG: Winner takes all in Turkey

By bne IntelliNews April 6, 2012

bne -

A fight broke out in the Turkish parliament in late March over a controversial education bill. Days later, on April 4, two aging former military commanders went on trial for their roles in a 1980 coup. Yet there is little mention of the once much-debated headscarf. Welcome to the new Turkey.

Arguably, there is more of a revolution taking place in Turkey than most other countries in the region. In the past, Turkey's governments were known for being shaky and short-lived. Now, the ruling Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country's first single-party government since a multi-party politics were introduced in 1950, has been in power for nine years and political stability has settled over the country. Reelected in June 2011 for another four-year term with nearly 50% of the vote, the AKP is no longer in a mood to negotiate and is focused on the implementation of its aims.

This was in evidence on March 30, when the Turkish parliament passed a contentious education reform bill that raised the number of mandatory school years from eight to 12. The passage of the so-called 4+4+4 bill (four years of primary, four years of middle, and four years of high school) is seemingly an effort to be applauded, rather than criticized. More than half of Turkey's population is under 26; the young people are considered to be one of the country's finest assets, especially in comparison to the aging citizenry of the EU. Yet education is considered inadequate and falls below the average for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. This makes the young population as much a risk as a resource.

However, the country's opposition blasted the AKP for pushing the bill through parliament too quickly. That students would be allowed to begin attending vocational school as young as 10 was another hot topic. Vocational schools include Islamic "imam hatip" schools, where students would receive religious education, putting education in the middle of the religious vs secular schism in Turkey.

Secular Turks recoil at the mention of the "imam hatip" schools, seeing them as another sign that the AKP aims to promote Islam in society. The early access to vocational schools would also mean that students might not receive as broad an education as they needed, especially if their parents wanted them to begin work earlier instead of seeking higher education, says the opposition. Home schooling will also be allowed after the first four years of education and critics say this will limit access to education for women because religious families in particular will want to keep their daughters at home. "Why shouldn't a pious generation come?" Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech earlier this year, drawing the ire of secular Turks who increasingly fear the direction the country is taking.

The Revolution's winners

In 1997, following its so-called "post-modern coup" against a government led by Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, the Turkish military supported a change in legislation that made 15 the age that students could attend vocational schools and thus, also, "imam hatip" schools.

The military considered itself the guardians of Turkey's secular founding values and has overthrown unfavourable governments four times since 1960. The AKP spent much of the first eight years of its rule locked in a power struggle with the military, finally coming out on top as supporting prosecutors moved against military officers accused of plotting another coup. The EU has long-required the establishment of civilian rule in Turkey, which the power of the military impeded, as part of its accession process.

With the education bill's passage on March 30 with 295 supporting votes out of the 550-member parliament, the AKP rolled back another sign of the military's domination over Turkish society. "This law will go down in history as an important step toward the reconciliation of the state with its people,'' Education Minister Omer Dincer said in a speech to parliament after the bill's passage.

There were at least two physical fights between AKP and opposition lawmakers over the bill; police in Ankara used tear gas to disperse protesters, including a teachers union, which wanted to march to the parliament to demonstrate against it. But the AKP had won its battles and found support in three elections. Had the world not been so focused on the events in Syria, the legislative changes might have otherwise made more global headlines. As it was, the AKP secured another victory as they put forth their style and agenda in a country whose future is considered bright with a growing dynamism and international clout. "This law has shown once again who the true owners of national sovereignty are. It is a law that shows how much democracy in Turkey has advanced,'' Erdogan said, according to AP.

In another symbolic move against the old Turkey, on April 4, the trial of former Turkish president Kenan Evren, 94, and former air force chief Tahsin Sahinkaya, 87, began in Ankara. Evren, also a former general, and Sahinkaya are the last living military leaders who carried out a 1980 coup and oversaw the writing of the country's current constitution, which is considered by the EU and other international bodies to be inadequate for upholding human rights and democratic practices.

Given their age, the two men are unlikely to ever serve time behind bars. But the message that the AKP is delivering is clear.

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