Despite Turkey’s ballooning current account deficit, ailing foreign policy and deeply polarized society, this week the public is discussing government’s proposed intention to inspect student houses where men and women live together.
Last week, I saluted the peaceful settlement of the headscarf issue in the Turkish parliament, which I believed would push the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to face and tackle real policy issues instead of petty agenda items such as the headscarf ban. Only few days later; however, Erdogan spoke about the necessity to take measures against mixed student housing because his party was a “conservative democratic party” and that authorities had received “a number of complaints from parents and neighbors.” The idea of inspecting mixed student cohabitation has become the top agenda item in the country amid increasingly growing criticisms that Erdogan is becoming more intrusive into the private life of citizens and interfere into people’s lifestyle.
There is currently no legal basis for the government to make the necessary inspection but Erdogan floated the idea of some kind of regulation. His ministers, however, denied that the government is planning to interfere into lifestyle of students and dismissed prevalent public perception that the authorities are planning to raid houses where men and women live together.
Rift within ruling party
Although Erdogan knows that he is at the center of criticism over people’s lifestyle choices, he does little to avoid plunging the country into unnecessary debates.Mahir Zeynalov
The harmful debate even put Erdogan and his close associate, deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, at odds. The saga has started when several Turkish newspapers published a leaked report on Monday, claiming that Erdogan spoke about the necessity to inspect mixed student cohabitation. Later on that day, Erdogan’s deputy publicly rejected the reports, describing them “false” and “ill-intentioned.”
Only less than 12 hours after that statement, Erdogan confirmed his remarks in his parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday, putting his deputy, who is also the government spokesman, into awkward situation.
Deeply outraged, the deputy prime minister went on air three days later and said there is an “obvious contradiction” between statements of him and Erdogan and that he is not the responsible one for this situation. The remarks sent chills through the ruling party circles, who tried to play down the rift ahead of municipal elections slated for March next year.
The row between Erdogan and his deputy is a public expression of the ruling party’s uncertain course in the new Turkey. In the past, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) challenged deeply anti-democratic forces and successfully raised the country’s profile with vibrant economy and consolidating democracy. AKP’s strongest rival, secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), previously preferred to maintain strong presence of military in politics and favored a number of anti-democratic measures to deny power for conservative parties.
Today, in contrast, there is different and a smarter opposition, learning from its past mistakes that has only strengthened its rival AKP. Last week, the main opposition party was expected to cause chaos when four headscarved AKP lawmakers entered into parliament. They understood that this would play right into the hands of the AKP and avoided doing that. Similarly, during this week’s debate about student housing, the CHP openly said it doesn’t favor to see male and female students staying together. AKP’s plan, if it had any, to put the CHP in a position that is defending mixed student housing – totally against the values of Turkish people – failed miserably.
Doing politics in new Turkey
With military withdrawn from politics and the opposition becoming smarter, the AKP now has to find effective ways to strengthen its electoral base. It is now increasingly clear that Erdogan plans to rally his supporters firmly behind him instead of seeking to gain more votes. With rhetoric, the prime minister plans to preserve his tremendous power.
Although Erdogan knows that he is at the center of criticism over people’s lifestyle choices, he does little to avoid plunging the country into such unnecessary debates. The policy issues that are being discussed – from abortion and alcohol sale restriction to mixed student cohabitation – have positive reverberations among Erdogan’s mostly conservative electorate. Criticizing the way these measures are proposed and endorsed automatically puts the critics in a position as if they are justifying that way of life.
Erdogan will most likely reach out to those who won’t vote for him after the elections. He always did. But can Turkey lift the heavy burden of this polarized society until the elections? This remains a big question.
Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov