As the government has been pushing for a new constitution that will involve switching Turkey‘s parliamentary system to a presidential system, one of Turkey’s internationally most renowned political scientistays that this is most likely to be a Turkish-style presidency without checks and balances.
(Here is the interview by Yonca Poyraz Doğan, with Today’s Zaman:)
“This is what’s in (President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan’s mind. He is drunk on power, but this is not only his fault. I know from my years as a university rector that everybody asked me everything. But I resisted getting drunk on power and corruption. It is easy to enjoy it when you have power,” said Üstün Ergüder, a political scientist known as the legendary rector of the distinguished Boğaziçi University of Turkey. Ergüder is also the only Turkish citizen to serve as the president of the Council of the Magna Charta Observatory, which monitors and advises on the status of academic freedom and institutional autonomy worldwide.
“‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ as Lord Acton put it. This is the syndrome Erdoğan goes through,” said Ergüder, adding that he is not the only one to blame as Turkish society breeds a culture of submission to its leaders.
In our interview, we also talked about last year’s elections, the Kurdish issue, education problems related to Kurdish children in the Southeast, Syrian refugees, the recent conflict regarding the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ), President Erdoğan in the 1990s, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was Ergüder’s student.
We also referred to his recent book “In Tumultuous Waters of Higher Education” (“Yükseköğretimin Fırtınalı Sularında”) in which Ergüder tells not only the story of Boğaziçi University but also his efforts to protect its autonomy, even in turbulent times such as when the infamous Higher Education Board (YÖK) issued directives to be respected, especially on the headscarf.
When we had our last interview in June 2012 the government had approved Kurdish as an elective course in schools and you had said that even though this was a positive first step, more liberalization was needed in the area. Now the Kurdish issue has a completely new dimension: The peace process has ended, giving way to war and the situation looks dismal. How would you evaluate it?
It’s very unfortunate. Back in 2012, we were moving in the right direction in terms of solving this problem. I don’t think this problem can be solved by autocratic and military methods. There should be formulas to solve social and cultural problems, and problems of exclusion. It’s very popular to blame the government but to be fair; we have to look at both sides of the issue. Some people say that the process was not really a genuine process. I supported the process but during the process, apparently, there was arming of the PKK [Kurdish Workers’ Party] and they prepared themselves for the next round of violence. We should not overlook that side of the issue. Any government would not tolerate it but I am critical of the government for tolerating it until it was too late — until you had an entrenched group of people to wage urban guerilla warfare. But the government had this attitude before. Take the Ergenekon trials; the government said it was fooled in this regard by the Gülen movement. It’s not an argument; it’s a weakness if they were fooled and they should have paid for it politically but they did not. The government says the same thing here. They say that the supporters of the PKK dug trenches and stored weapons, ammunition, etc. during the peace process. My other criticism of the government is in regard to the rise of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). I am very disturbed to see that the political integration of the Kurdish movement took a heavy blow between the two elections [of June 7 and Nov. 1, 2015].
Would you elaborate on this idea?
We needed to understand the HDP’s dilemma. The HDP was genuinely trying to integrate itself into Turkish politics. They also had a Kurdish constituency, which believed in integrating itself into Turkish politics. There was also another part of its constituency that believed in violence and separating itself from Turkey. There was a tug of war between those groups. This was reflected in the HDP’s dilemma after the elections. It was like a group of people were pulling on one leg and the other group was pulling on the other leg in the opposite direction. Turkish politics failed between the two elections to pull the HDP closer towards the center. The government treated the HDP as the major villain — a totally wrong strategy.
Do you think it was not right to have another election on Nov. 1?
Turkey needed coalitions because times have changed. If you had read what I had written as a political scientist back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you would find me anti-coalition because during those days Turkey was unable to produce an effective government, and there were important problems — the Kurdish problem was on the rise, there was student violence in cities, economic problems, etc. There was a lack of credible political leadership. Part of the responsibility lay with an electoral system that kept producing coalition governments, so I was very critical of it. But now Turkey has reached a stage in which we went through a period of single-party governments with effective leadership that produced some reforms. In that same period, we had a rise in authoritarianism and lack of checks and balances. That’s why the elections of June 7 provided a very good opportunity, and the opposition was able to produce a credible alternative, a credible coalition. I am very critical of the stance taken by the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP]. On the evening of the election, they said that they would not be part of any coalition and did not regard the HDP as a legitimate political party — exactly what should not have been done. People were looking for a credible opposition but there was none. Then we had rise in violence, economic problems and no attempt to produce a coalition.
Can the peace process be restored?
Let’s look at the election results from both June 7 and Nov. 1. Did the HDP lose votes because some voters from İstanbul’s Beşiktaş and Nişantaşı districts did not vote for it again on Nov. 1? No, the HDP lost votes in the Southeast, and apparently, a good portion of the people in the Southeast do not want to separate from Turkey. Military approaches cannot produce solutions, and the peace process should come back so as not to lose those people altogether.
There are issues related to the education problems of young people in the region. Approximately, 150,000 children, maybe even more, cannot go to school. The ERG [Education Reform Initiative] had a statement in this regard, right?
Without blaming anybody in the statement, we said that the state has a responsibility to provide education and should produce a solution in this regard. How? They should seriously think about it and develop a plan. If they ask us, we can help. As if they responded to our statement, government officials started to talk about the issue, but we don’t know what they are doing in this regard. There is also another issue: the education of Syrian children in Turkey. Many Syrian immigrants’ children are on the streets. Ten years from now, they will be 20 year olds. Right now they are potential terrorists. Look at children in the trenches of the Southeast. Ten years ago, how old were they? They have only seen war, not education. This has been like this for 30-40 years. Young people know of only guns and battles. For Syrians, there are other issues, too: Are you going to educate them as Syrians or do you regard them as future Turkish citizens? I think you have to use your education system to integrate them into Turkish society. These decisions have to be made. There are some education services provided in refugee camps but most of the Syrians are not in the camps now, they are everywhere in Turkey.
You have been to the Southeast for work and you know that part of Turkey. People who live in western Turkey cannot usually identify with that part of the country. Do you observe this as well?
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I sometimes said in my academic papers that Turkey is both Denmark and Bangladesh within the same borders. This is an extreme statement but parts of Turkey are like Europe while parts of it are really backwards. That’s what I was trying to say. In big cities today, there are canton-like neighborhoods. Those who live in Fatih are quite different to the ones in Nişantaşı.
There was a conflict at the Middle East Technical University (ODTÜ) during the last days of December as some students clashed over a demand for the construction of another mosque on the campus. Soon after, President Erdoğan called on the Higher Education Board [YÖK] to do “what was necessary,” indicating that his office would be closely following the case. YÖK set up a commission to monitor the situation at the university. And recently, about 700 academics have issued a declaration calling for respect to be given to the university’s autonomy. Do you see it as an attempt by the government through YÖK to control ODTÜ?
I am against any intervention into universities. To me, universities are the brain of the society, and there should be freethinking. Universities should promote even nonsense but violence cannot be accepted. Students and faculties should be able to say whatever they are thinking of, otherwise, we cannot expect innovation. A university is a place for critical thinking. Universities are not vocational schools. YÖK has been an institution every Turkish political leader was critical of and then, after spending some time in power, they all loved it. Why? Because YÖK is a good tool to control universities — that is wrong. The ODTÜ administration is capable of handling the situation; there is no need to interfere.
We have not heard the ODTÜ administration talking about the issue, have we?
Silence can be a strategy. We had to do that at the Boğaziçi University many times. At the time of my presidency, we had most problems due to headscarved female students’ desire to attend classes. Some of the faculty members said it was their human right to attend classes and some others said no. In addition, YÖK was pressuring us not to allow headscarved female students into classes. Even though I sided with the faculty who wanted to allow those students into classes, I had to answer to YÖK. We did not go to the media at the time and said that we allow those students into classes and that Boğaziçi was one of rare higher education institutions to allow them into classes. However, we acted as if we were respecting YÖK regulations and we started disciplinary actions against faculty members who allowed those female students to take classes. But we told those faculty members not to attach importance to them; we were slowing down the disciplinary process. In the meantime, students were able to graduate. We need to be rationalistic to be able to solve problems.
The ODTÜ, which operates the country’s main Internet domain, also faced accusations from Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım who said the university fails to take the necessary measures to prevent attacks and does not cooperate with the security forces as Internet servers continue to suffer from one of the country’s most intense cyber attacks to date. What are your thoughts on this?
ODTÜ is a real university. It tries to remain autonomous. And such universities would attract negative reaction in Turkey. It has been like this in other periods, too. The ODTÜ is only one of only a few universities to be in such a position. Boğaziçi University has that quality as well but the ODTÜ is disadvantageous because of being in Ankara. In Ankara, universities are more statist than the ones in İstanbul. When it comes to the technical issue, theoretically, this task had better be in the hands of the state rather than at a university in normal circumstances. This task was given to the ODTÜ because only it had the capacity to handle it. What needs be done about it now? I would support that the task remains with the ODTÜ because first, it is still the best institution to handle it technologically. Second, having the task at the ODTÜ guarantees that our freedoms are protected. If this task is given to the ministry, we could have been finished.
A new regulation gives YÖK the authority to close down private universities that “have become a focal point for activities against the state’s indivisible integrity.” And this is believed to have been passed in order to close down universities affiliated with the Gülen movement. What’s your opinion?
This is a very dangerous things to do because if a government changes and a completely different type of government comes into play, then such regulations can be used to close universities that are thought to belong to groups that the government does not like.
In your book you have a section titled “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” There, you express a positive view of him as you interacted with him when you were president of Boğaziçi University and he was the mayor of İstanbul. Have your views changed about Erdoğan?
It is not possible to have the same opinion. It was 1994 then and about 20 years have passed. We have to look at his performance over time. He then became prime minister and later president, and we have been through a period in which there have been no checks and balances. He was scared of the Turkish military and now there is no such issue. The European Union was there but it is not anymore. We live in a society where the culture of being submissive to the leader is encouraged. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton put it. This is Tayyip Erdoğan’s syndrome. Therefore, 1994 is very different to 2015. In 1994, as I explained in the book, we visited his office as rectors of different universities. But the atmosphere was rather like, “We are against you.” This is not an attitude that I can ever agree with. He was an elected mayor and we needed to have dialogue to do business. Therefore, I asked for another appointment with him to discuss the issues regarding the university. My impression of him was that he was ready to listen to you more than anybody else if you used the right language, and at the same time that he could get very nervous over even a small matter. During our talk, I told him that I had no interest in religion. He told me that this is the Turkey he wants — everybody can do whatever they want to do. As you know, he lost this outlook later and started to meddle with issues such as the appropriate length of women’s skirts and of alcohol, as he referred to some people as drunkards, etc. In other words, he injected his personal views into the public arena. However, I believed him then.
Do you think you would be more skeptical of Tayyip Erdoğan back in 1994 if you had known what you know now about his political performance?
Yes, I would be. Now, I am trying to place myself in Tayyip Erdoğan’s shoes and think about how everybody around him approves his behavior, bending over backwards to please him. If I were in his shoes, I might have become deluded as well. That’s why term limits and checks and balances are important.
And we have a government desire to transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one. Is this worrying for you?
The Turkish style of presidency means no checks and balances. This is what is in Erdoğan’s mind. He is drunk on power, but it is not only his fault; it can happen to anyone because we are the ones who cause this. I was a university rector. Everybody asked me everything. I knew it was dangerous. I felt it at just a small university, so he must have felt it as a leader who has been victorious in every election. And politicians say that people elected them. But democracy is not only about elections. There is also the issue of human rights. In order to respect human rights you need to protect the rights of those who did not elect you. But this is not our understanding of democracy in Turkey.
Because of the demand of the government, the presidential system has come onto the agenda of Turkey again. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş recently called on Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu to debate on live television, saying that Davutoğlu should explain what kind of presidential system the government wants while he himself will explain what self-administration (a demand expressed especially by the HDP) is. What do you think about Demirtaş’s request?
This is a good call. We need this kind of environment for debate. Turkey has a problem in Ankara — too much centralization. This is not a problem only for the Southeast, we need power in local governments everywhere in Turkey. When I was a university rector, I fought for autonomy. Think about it, when you became the head of a university, a top body (YÖK) starts to see you as a person who will evade regulations. There is an awful form of centralization and they tell you what to do all of the time. There is a top-down approach. I will never forget the day that I came back from the United States. I was in Ankara’s Kızılay at the time of day when people get out of work. On that gloomy day I saw crowds coming out of work, the dark-suited men who rule Turkey from Ankara. But do they really know Turkey? That’s what I thought that day. I support Demirtaş in this regard. We need autonomous universities and powerful local governments throughout Turkey.
Prime Minister Davutoğlu was your student.
He was a very good student.
How do you evaluate his performance as prime minister?
A very good student and a very good academic doesn’t necessarily make a good politician. Davutoğlu has a long way to go as a politician because he has been in that position under the wing of a very powerful leader without proving his capacity. Therefore, I cannot make a judgment on his performance as a politician. However, I believe he knows how important checks and balances are in a democracy and democracy is very much linked to human rights. I don’t think Tayyip Erdoğan knows it. I hope Davutoğlu’s practice will reflect those values. When he became prime minister, I wrote him a letter and said that I am sure he will apply the values with which he was molded at Boğaziçi University in his position.
Did he reply?
No. But he seems to be open to communication. When I call with an issue, he responds.
Dr. Üstün Ergüder
Emeritus professor at Sabanci University, he is the only Turkish citizen who served (in 2009-2013) as president of the Council of Magna Charta Observatory located in Bologna, Italy. Between August 1992 and August 2000 he served as the rector of Boğaziçi University for two consecutive terms. Prior to his appointment as rector, he chaired the department of political science and international relations. He was the director of the İstanbul Policy Center at Sabancı University in 2001-2010. Currently, he directs the Education Reform Initiative (ERG), an advocacy project located at Sabancı University and chairs the executive committee and the Board of Trustees of the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey. He most recently became the chair of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey.