The way a year ends usually determines how the next one starts, so Turkey's youth may be the best guide to the opportunities and challenges facing the country's political leadership as it enters 2013.
On Dec.18, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended a ceremony on the campus of the Middle East Technical University just outside Ankara to celebrate the launch of Turkey's first domestic high-resolution Earth observation satellite, Gokturk-2. The event's organizers didn't invite the president and opposition party leaders to mark this proud day for the nation, and they also excluded students. Instead, 3500 policemen were deployed to protect Erdogan from students.
Nearly 300 students gathered nearby to protest the prime minister's policies and express their concern about the country's direction under his leadership. "These students were not protesting the launching of the Gokturk-2 satellite, as the prime minister likes to portray," Dogan Tilic, a teacher at the Media and Cultural Studies program, told Al-Monitor. "The students were protesting Erdogan's Syria policy, his overall Middle East approach. They're worried that he will take Turkey into a war, and they are reacting to the deployment of the Patriot missiles."
Policy differences between Erdogan and the students, coupled with the heavy police presence, triggered clashes. The police used water cannons and nearly 2000 tear-gas canisters against the students. Windows in nearby university buildings were shattered and classroom instruction ground to a halt. The university administration released a statement accusing the police of using excessive force. "We expect the security forces to act carefully in order for METU and all of Turkey to be safe from violence," the statement said. "We underline once again that the police should stop the use of force against students who wish to exercise their right to protest."
Erdogan argued that it was the students who resorted to violence and that they should be condemned — not the police. "These students carry stones, and Molotov cocktails in their bags. They burned tires on campus," he said. "I wonder whether these professors at this university teach students how to make Molotov cocktails?"
Erdogan also claimed that the main opposition party, the CHP, provokes the youth to use violence. "The Republican People's Party calls on people to resist on the streets at every chance," he said. "CHP hides behind students after handing them Molotov cocktails."
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the CHP's leader, vehemently denied such accusations and argued that the prime minister doesn't understand the definition of a university. "There will surely be opposing views at the universities," Kilicdaroglu said. "If you're using force to suppress that, it's not right. One can't call those 'academicians' if they only see these events through the prime minister's eyes. The prime minister needs to understand what a university is."
Erdogan also often accuses the Peace and Democracy Party, the Kurdish party or the BDP of provoking Kurdish youth to throw rocks at security forces. The Turkish government conveniently ignores that Kurdish youth are full of resentment for and disappointment with the state more than their elder generation.
Tilic told Al-Monitor that police initiated the clashes using pepper spray on students. "They were not doing anything harmful or violent when the police attacked them," he said. "But once they were attacked, they started to throw stones at them. There is no proof, no evidence at all that these students had used Molotov cocktails."
Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin acknowledged that police used disproportionate force at METU. "This casts a shadow over the image of both the state and its police forces," Sahin said. "Of course police forces should be careful not to use excessive force when fulfilling their duties."
Nearly 3,000 students gathered at METU stadium the next day to protest Erdogan's harsh rhetoric about them. Police raided the homes of at least ten university students who are accused of leading a violent protest. There were no reports of arrests during the raids, but thousands of students have been jailed for protesting government policies since AKP came to power.
A dozen university administrators condemned the students' violence at METU and aligned themselves with Erdogan's accusations, including officials at the prestigious Galatasaray, Istanbul Technical, Mimar Sinan, Marmara and Hacettepe universities. Groups of faculty at these institutions were quick to assert that the administrations' views didn't reflect their own.
In Turkey, the president of the republic appoints university leaders. "The universities make their internal elections to decide on the next university president, and propose a list of their candidates based on the votes they receive," Tilic said. "There have been numerous incidents where the president preferred those who received the lowest votes, clearly promoting them solely based on their approach to the ruling party."
Ahmet Acar, the rector of METU, met on Dec.28 with the prime minister and the president. Since then, the universities seem to have calmed down. Yet Acar didn't accept Erdogan's accusations that students precipitated the violence. On the contrary, Acar stressed that the security forces should have taken precautions prior to Erdogan's visit, and not risked bringing education to a halt on the campus, which also includes a kindergarten and primary school. But the prime minister didn't retreat from his accusations about what took place on the METU campus that day.
What this means for Turkey in 2013 is clear: Political polarization is back at the universities.
"A segment of Turkish society believes the current government is aiming to diminish their identity, and therefore they feel under pressure, and experience oppression," Abdulkadir Cevik, a professor at the Ankara University psychiatry department, told Al-Monitor. "The ones who are in charge of the country today, however, know well what it means to be ignored or sidelined. They could have acted with their experience of knowing what it feels like but they failed in showing empathy today to their opponents."
While Erdogan continues to win votes with his rhetoric slamming METU students and painting himself as the victim, no leader should cultivate the politicization of universities. The new year will present Erdogan with another opportunity to be the leader of all Turkey — including the young people who protest his policies on campuses. Failure to seize that opportunity will only invite chaos. Whoever wants to make predictions about Turkey's economic and political future shouldn't forget to include the nation's youth in the calculation.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.