Clash of old friends or new foes?

Clash of old friends or new foes?

The controversy over co-ed housing and mixed-sex education in Turkey has entered into a new level last week with senior officials and deputies from the ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) spilling the beans and labeling co-education “a mistake that needs to be corrected.”

For AKP deputies, it was an issue of freedom, apparently, and students, who are most probably being raised by “conservative democrat” families, have the right to be offered schools that does not have co-ed system. But for others who were “not conservative and democrat enough,” the real and ultimate intention of the AKP was to “sanctify the outrageous” education system, which has failed to offer conservative education options.

Amid the growing outcry and fears over the AKP’s take on co-ed housing and education, another debate has also been brewing on the issue of test prep courses for university entrance exams in a sector that is dominated by a particular religious community, which has supported the AKP since prior to their coming to power. Evidently ending his political and emotional bonds with the powerful Hizmet (Service) Movement – led by self-exiled, U.S.-based religious scholar Fethullah Gülen, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has instigated a public war on test prep courses, his justification being that these courses will be integrated into the main education system. His remarks came at the same party meeting, during which he also declared a war against co-ed housing.

As the tensions between the Gülen Movement and Erdoğan reached its highest peak over the test prep courses affair, it was no secret that the ties between the two have been chilly for the last couple of years. Perhaps, Erdoğan’s vow to end the prep courses system, which is the main financial and influence source for the Hizmet, has been perceived as an opening of Pandora’s Box for the AKP and the movement. But it was a friction that has been expected for a while, not only by AKP opponents, who have been hoping that such a row would weaken the ruling party, but also by AKP insiders, who have been thinking that the party, as well as the country, with that friction already having arrived.

With the salvos in both the co-ed system and prep schools, the AKP government has actually opened two fronts in a political fight that is seemingly given for the sake of Turkey’s future and their education.

Despite the desperate efforts by some pro-government media groups to play-down the row as purely being over an education matter, the AKP obviously does not want a power to challenge it, whether it be friend or foe, and sending tremors to the Hizmet influence via its main epicenter in the education scheme.

Senior AKP officials, even the prime minister’s self, have been suggesting that the move on test prep schools was not aimed at the Hizmet Movement, however, at the same time the idea that the movement’s influence on the AKP electorate is less than that it is thought to be is something currently being promulgated in surveys conducted by the party. While the percentage of constitute belonging to the movement was between 8-10 in the early days of the tension, it has now decreased to around 1-3 in a move to convince skeptics within the party that the AKP’s elector base is still strongly in the safe zone.

The end of the AKP-Hizmet argument is not in sight yet and there is a slimming possibility that the two sides might bury the hatchet against each other. Perhaps, a crisis could be turned into an opportunity by integrating the test prep course into schools, which would offer single-gender education. Or Erdoğan would soften, or even backpedal from, his vow on prep courses, which had happened more than once in the past.

What is clear today is that the prime minister cannot stand any power, either “conservative” enough or not, on his long run to the presidency whatever the cost is.