The sultan and his sycophants: Erdoğan is leading Turkey towards a bleak future
The appointment of a controversial new rector to Boğaziçi University is typical of the president’s poor leadership
When the Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, one of the first things its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, did was surround himself with well-educated bureaucrats.
This practice was key to the AKP’s success in subsequent elections, as many citizens of Turkey trusted Erdoğan’s ability to recruit promising names to his cabinet. Competent policies in economy and diplomacy helped with the makings of a strong state – even a model democracy for the Muslim world, as scholars once argued.
It was this merit-based governance that defined AKP’s early years. Ministers such as Ali Babacan, Ahmet Davutoğlu or Abdullah Gül may have been feared by some secular Turks for their Islamic past, but for most others, it was their achievements that mattered.
Babacan – who has been the chief negotiator for the EU accession process, the minister of foreign affairs and the deputy prime minister – graduated top of his class from Turkey’s prestigious Middle Eastern Technical University, followed by an MBA at Northwestern University in the US. Prior to accepting an invitation to serve in Erdoğan's cabinet, Babacan was a financial consultant in Chicago.
Davutoğlu – formerly the minister of foreign affairs and the prime minister – has a PhD in Political Science from Boğaziçi University. Before joining the AKP, he taught in Malaysia and chaired a political sciences department in Turkey.
And Gül, who has been the minister of the state, the minister of foreign affairs, the deputy prime minister, the prime minister and the president of the Republic, is a doctor of economics. He worked at the Islamic Development Bank before joining AKP’s predecessor, the Welfare Party, and serving as a member of the parliament.
Names of similar stature filled up seats in three cabinets before Erdoğan became the president in 2014. These names are surely not without faults. We remember their silence during the Gezi Park protests, the mass anti-government demonstrations that swept the country between May and August 2013, and led to the indictment of numerous critics, including Osman Kavala, whose unlawful detention continues to date.
Yet in recent years, there has been a swift change in conduct, with appointments made not for their merit, but loyalty to the country’s president, and subservience to his political party in power.
Hamza Yerlikaya, a two-time Olympic champion wrestler was appointed to the board of Turkey’s third-largest public bank; Ebubekir Şahin, the head of the Radio and Television Supreme Council was elected to the board of another prominent public bank; Mustafa Sancar, the chairman of the Ankara Zoo was placed as the deputy chair of the Scientific and Technological Research Council’s publication powerhouse, ULAKBİM; and Erkan Kandemir, an ex-board member of the AKP Youth Branch was appointed as the deputy chair of the Health Ministry.
What do all of these people have in common? Their ties to the AKP, and their public praise for its leader, Erdoğan.
Power and plagiarism
The most recent addition to this list is Melih Bulu. On 2 January 2021, Erdoğan appointed Bulu as the new head of one of the country’s leading academic institutions, Boğaziçi University. For an institution that has long relied on a tradition of electing its own rectors, the appointment was seen as undemocratic, leading to popular protests that continue to date.
Critics duly point out Erdoğan’s heavy-handed handling of the protests. But there is yet another problem, which has to do with the loss of intellectualism in governance and the ultimate forfeiture of statecraft.
On paper, Bulu may be a plausible appointee, or kayyum, as such appointments are commonly referred to in Turkish. While attaining his Master’s and PhD degrees in business management from Boğaziçi, Bulu tried his luck in politics. First he served as a founding member of the AKP’s Sarıyer district branch, and then he ran for office twice, failing both times as he was unable to secure the party votes necessary to put him on the ballot.
For a president who takes the Ottoman Empire as his point of reference, Erdoğan needs better education in history. What brought the Ottomans down was a type of governance not so unlike the one he is pursuing
Bulu then transitioned to the professional realm, holding managerial and advisory positions in both public and private firms, putting to use his education on industrial engineering and management. He also took part-time teaching duties at several universities, including Boğaziçi, and climbed up the academic ladder by earning tenure, and serving as the department chair in Istanbul Şehir Üniversitesi – which closed after the failed 2016 coup d’etat – followed by rectoral appointments by Erdoğan to İstinye and Haliç Üniversities.
Compared to Boğaziçi’s previous rectors, Bulu’s academic achievements may not appear that impressive. But we are not here to judge his competence based on his CV. Rather, it is his prior mistakes that we find problematic.
A few days after his appointment, Bulu faced allegations of plagiarism in his dissertation work as well as articles published towards his tenure. Plagiarism is a red line that no credible academic – let alone a rector – should cross. It is academia’s gravest sin, which not only shows an academic’s inability to produce scholarly work but also reveals a graceless path leading to that.
Entire paragraphs were seemingly copied and pasted without proper citation, suggesting that Bulu is not loyal to science, as any academic should be, but craves political power and prestige. Bulu refuted the accusation, seeing it as a minor misdemeanour that was levied against him as part of a larger slander campaign. In order to save his seat, he chose to lose face.
Bulu has yet to resign. Given his love of a prestigious position, he likely will not. Erdoğan could have chosen to replace Bulu and have the higher moral ground by letting Boğaziçi’s academic staff elect their own rector. Or he could have chosen to listen to names he has previously worked with, like Babacan, who has extended a call for Bulu’s resignation. But such would be too lofty a request from a sultan who loves his throne, and deeply fears its loss.
Lessons from the late Ottoman Empire
For a president who takes the Ottoman Empire as his point of reference, Erdoğan needs better education in history. Had he kept some of his old advisers around – say, even Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman romance – rather than lose them to academic posts overseas, put them in jail after the attempted coup, or watch them form their own political parties, they could have told him that what brought the Ottomans down was primarily a type of governance not so unlike the one he is pursuing today.
Late Ottomans were once considered the sick man of Europe. The analogy described not just the rapid loss of Ottoman territory starting in the late 17th century, but also an empire which lacked solid governance.
Subsequent sultans of the late Ottoman era appointed statesmen whose loyalty was unquestionable, but their statecraft merely adequate. Take the case of Mahmud II (1808-39) whose fear of losing the throne led to his widespread practice of favouritism.
Mustafa Reşit Paşa, a prominent statesman of the times, and the architect of Ottoman modernism (Tanzimat), questioned the sultan’s choices in appointing statesmen to handle Ottoman domestic and international affairs and feared that the sultan’s actions would reflect poorly on governance and bring loss of power and prestige. And they did.
Another example is Abdülhamid II, the Sublime Khan (1876-1909), whom Erdoğan looks up to. Like Mahmud II, Abdülhamid II, too, surrounded himself with loyal statesmen who lacked political acumen. The sultan was known for appointing the offspring of ulemas, or prominent theologians, to top governing posts in the Empire. Names chosen for familial and kinship ties, not merit, were made governors of numerous Ottoman provinces.
This practice continued until the Revolution of 1908, when the Young Turks revolted against the Sultan and established what would become a constitutional monarchy, but they were left with incompetent rulers in key governing posts.
Erdoğan’s current handling of politics, which is akin to that of late-Ottoman sultans, is destined to bring both his own demise, and that of the country he reigns. Erdoğan believes that he can retain the throne by surrounding himself with sycophants. By handing out seats to those who pledge their allegiance to him, he assures them that rewards await those who remain obedient. But what good can come of a country whose top banks are run by wrestlers, top scientific agencies by zoo managers, and top universities by men who have no understanding of scholarly ethics?
With a PhD in management, Bulu may be a good manager. And his AKP membership is a sign of his loyalty to Erdoğan, though we should keep in mind that many of those who pledged loyalty to Abdulhamid II switched sides once he was deposed.
But these alone do not suffice for a leadership role at Boğaziçi. His rectorship is not only a disgrace to himself, it is also a warning sign for the way Turkey is headed. If Erdoğan is true about his love of the Ottomans, he must realise that loyalty without merit will lead to an Empire’s demise.
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