The new year began with a new movement of student resistance in Turkey that has captured the attention of many people in different countries. January 4th marked the start of mass protests against President Erdoğan’s Jan 1st appointment of an administrator linked to his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as rector of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.
In a sense, the demand of the protesters for the resignation of the Erdoğan appointee and for the democratic election of university rectors is not a radical one. If realized, it would align the country’s education policy with what is overwhelmingly a norm of university governance in Europe. Note that Turkey’s EU accession remains a formal subject of negotiations and was promised by the AKP in its foundational election victory in 2002 when it was a liberal darling.
To accurately judge the current student struggle, and grasp the internal contradictions, one must have an impression of the facts in Turkey at the dawn of 2021. The political situation in the country has been dominated since 2015-16 by Erdoğan’s dramatic escalation of attacks on democratic rights and by the formation of the AKP’s governing coalition with the fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose Grey Wolves youth organization was recently proscribed in France and is under debate for proscription in Germany. The direct presidential appointment of rectors at state universities itself belongs to this period, issued in the immediate aftermath of Erdoğan’s putting down of the July 2016 coup attempt by his former allies in the Gülen movement. (The text of Decree Law No. 676, Section Seven, Article 85 establishing the policy can be found here.) This further centralized the rector selection process in place since 1981, a result of the 1980 military coup, which had imposed a framework of approval by the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and by the president.
In this context, university autonomy takes on the significance of a great banner of struggle to halt the advance of fascism, one that also reinforces the struggles of the workers, laborers, and oppressed nationalities in Turkey. LGBT students in particular have been at the forefront of the fight, bearing a large part of the repression, singled out by the fascist AKP-MHP government in a crude maneuver to appeal to base and retrograde notions of nationalism and “moral values”.
The heroism of the students who have faced house raids, police violence, and arrests by the hundreds recalls that of their counterparts around the world who raised the same banner in the past and invested it with contents far beyond its prosaic terms. We refer here to the student movement in Russia which arose at the turn of the last century to call for university autonomy as a central demand, at a time when the tsarist autocracy’s 1884 University Statute mandated the appointment of university rectors. We refer here also to the great struggle for reform centered in 1918 at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina, a heterogeneous movement that called for university autonomy against clerical and feudal domination, with political reverberations throughout the continent during the subsequent decades. Like these and other predecessors, all students who struggle today for freedom, linking it with class and state questions, will inevitably find in socialism a reference and guide out of the multifaceted reaction of our time.