Turkey’s first issue-based candidate says ‘It’s education, stupid!’

Turkey’s first issue-based candidate says ‘It’s education, stupid!’

By making promises of improvement in the material conditions of pensioners and workers on the minimum wage, the CHP has targeted the right constituency, according to veteran journalist Güngör Uras. What the CHP has actually done is promise to introduce measures that would strengthen the social policies that were inaugurated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Uras told me. 

Making election promises based on the pledge that “I will give you 5 cents more than the other party” is only natural during electoral campaigns, he said, while adding that in order to realize these pledges and improve the economy we actually need to talk about education. “Our education system is not just bad, it sucks!” Uras told me.

Batuhan Aydagül, Turkey’s first issue-based candidate, probably cannot agree more. His motto could easily be “It’s education, stupid!” 

Aydagül recently left his position as the head of the Education Reform Initiative, one of Turkey’s most objective and independent non-governmental organizations, to become a candidate in the June general elections. He has been dealing with education issues since 2003. He has never been a categorical AKP opponent. On the contrary, he has always underlined the positive steps taken by the party on the issue of education. 

Indeed, the AKP’s success lies in the fact that it first and foremost addressed the problems of the low-income groups in society. The AKP’s social policies targeted the most vulnerable people. Meanwhile, sticking to economic reforms that were put into effect just before it came to office led to economic stability and growth, which also benefited the better-off. So there was a double-win for the AKP. 

However, not only did it refrain from coming up with additional structural reforms that were necessary for the continuation of the economic success story, but by endorsing particular ideological positions the AKP started to neglect and alienate the elites that still remain one of the real driving forces of the Turkish economy. 

So there is no doubt that the poor have become less poor in Turkey, and as a result the rate of school enrollment among the poor has seriously increased. The AKP needs to be given credit for that. But the AKP fails to see that by neglecting the quality of education and also alienating the well-educated it can no longer provide better lives to those who are less poor than they were in the past.

Now that the poor have become less poor, they are asking for the bridge between them and the better-off to be narrower. How can you do that? By improving the quality in education and also by ending the government’s condescending look toward the well-educated former “elites,” who have either left the country or who wait in deep resentment on the sidelines (to which they have been pushed by AKP loyalists who are not better qualified). It is this resentful class that could take Turkey into the top 10 economies in the world, not the scholarized but unskilled new generations.

“There is no doubt that Turkey became richer due to the economic and social policies of the first eight years of AKP rule. That has reflected itself positively on education. For instance, more children from the poorer segments of society, as well as more girls, have enrolled in schools,” said Aydagül. “The increase in enrollment is important but it is not sufficient for economic production and growth. It is not enough for children to go to schools. They are going to schools but they aren’t learning. They need to acquire cognitive skills.” 

Families tend to see education as an important tool for social mobility, but poverty is still a huge hurdle in front of getting a quality education, according to Aydagül. He added that the AKP has done nothing over the past four years to increase quality in education, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

In other words, those families who used to be grateful to the AKP for enabling them to send their children to school now want more. They ask for more quality in education. 

“The AKP has fallen in the trap of using education as a powerful tool for political indoctrination, rather than using it to promote social justice and economic development,” said Aydagül. “Unless education changes, nothing will change in Turkey.”