In Death of democracy, Turkey / Türkiye

At midnight on the first of January, it hit the news that President Erdoğan had appointed a new rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities. It soon emerged that the newly appointed rector, Melih Bulu, had intimate ties to the ruling AKP government and had campaigned unsuccessfully to be an AKP nominee for member of parliament from a district in Istanbul during the 2015 general elections.

By Duygun Ruben, Fikri Buber, and Mahir Tamercan Ölmez

Published on Legal Forum, Feb 13, 2021

At midnight on the first of January, it hit the news that President Erdoğan had appointed a new rector of Boğaziçi University, one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities. It soon emerged that the newly appointed rector, Melih Bulu, had intimate ties to the ruling AKP government and had campaigned unsuccessfully to be an AKP nominee for member of parliament from a district in Istanbul during the 2015 general elections. A couple of days later, Boğaziçi students began protesting the new appointment. Faculty members at Boğaziçi also began to protest by turning their backs to the rectorate building for a half hour, an act they have performed each and every day since then. After faculty members consistently refused to work with the appointed rector for a month, Erdoğan made a presidential decree that two new faculties—law and communication—would be established at Boğaziçi. This was widely understood as a move to provide the rector with support from academic staff over the long term. [1]

The “trustee rector” initially sought to cultivate a lenient and benevolent image by emphasizing his tolerance of the protests and declaring his gratitude to his former instructors at Boğaziçi. That image did not last long. On the first day of the protests, police violently intervened in protests in front of the main entrance of the university. A day later, police raided homes to arrest several protesters. The police violence against protestors has continued with increasing intensity since then. In total, to this day (i.e. 13 February), 601 students and protesters have been detained, 25 have been placed under house arrest, and 11 have been arrested and jailed outright. [2]

Different dimensions of what has been taking place at Boğaziçi since 1 January should be understood by reference to the increasingly authoritarian character of Turkey’s political regime. It is beyond the limits of this piece to do justice to all of the turning points of this intensifying authoritarianism, or to provide a thorough discussion of its causes. We can, however, take note of some landmarks.

One such landmark is the Gezi Park protests, which took place in May and June 2013. These protests began as a small-scale demonstration, mainly by environmentalists, against the government’s decision to demolish Gezi Park, one of the few remaining public parks in the centre of Istanbul. After disproportionate police violence against the initial demonstrators, the small-scale protests turned into nationwide protests, with millions expressing their discontent with the government. The police brutality against these nationwide protests clearly showed how far the government was willing to go to quell popular dissent. [3]

A second landmark is the failed coup attempt by the Gülenist section of the military against the government, which was utilized as a pretext by Erdoğan and the AKP to enhance their power over civil society, as well as legislative and judicial institutions and separation-of-powers mechanisms. [4] This way of governing was solidified with a referendum in 2018, which changed Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary to a presidential system, in which the executive and the president possess overarching powers. Erdoğan was re-elected president a year later.

Attacks on academic freedom have also accelerated since the failed coup attempt in 2016, and the ensuing wave of intensifying authoritarianism. One exceptionally large-scale attack against academic freedom involved the discharging of more than 400 academics from universities by statutory decree. These academics were signatories to a declaration titled “We Will Not Be a Party To This Crime!”, which called for an end to state violence against civilians in districts where conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK continues. This has expunged many universities of critical academics, and broadly silenced the rest of the discontent. A second major attack on academic freedom was a statutory decree issued in October 2016, which removed rectoral elections in universities and gave Erdoğan exclusive powers to appoint rectors. [5] Erdoğan appointed Melih Bulu to Boğaziçi on 1 January by way of this decree. [6]

Bulu’s appointment as Boğaziçi’s rector can be considered the latest round of the attacks of the government against academic freedom in Turkey, and the Boğaziçi resistance its latest reaction. The protests are mired in immense police violence, and the arbitrary detention and arrest of protesters. The university’s main entrance, as well as the neighbourhood in which the university is located, has been under a police blockade since the beginning of the protests. The aim of this blockade is to make it impossible for students to hold protests and issue public statements outside the university campus. One protest that was attempted in front of the university’s main entrance waset with more than a hundred detentions, not only of people in front of the main entrance but also of many students and protesters, who were hundreds of metres away. During these events, students attempting to get out of the university’s premises in order to protest and read a public statement were not allowed to leave the campus. In response, the students decided to gather around the rectorate and wait for the appointed rector to get out of the building, in order to protest him on the recent detentions. The appointed rector did not get out and instead let an army of police enter the university’s premises several hours later. The police violently dispersed the protest and detained fifty students on campus. Several days later, another protest that was attempted in a central district of Istanbul was met with severe police violence, with the police determined to prevent the gathering of thousands of students and protesters, and using tear gas, rubber bullets, and violent detention practices to do so. Protests in other cities supporting Boğaziçi have also immediately been met with police violence and large-scale detentions. As we have already stated, many people have been arrested, jailed, or put under house arrest. Many legal professionals state that these arrests are politically motivated, and that they are made by reference to laws whose infringement are in ordinary circumstances not punished with jail or house arrest.

We believe that the amount of police violence in response to the protests, as well as the arbitrary nature of the detentions and arrests, are related to the government’s fear of wider discontent gaining visibility and turning into even larger protests. Turkey has been embroiled in an economic crisis since at least 2018. One feature of the crisis is the depreciation of the Turkish lira against major foreign currencies. As a result, most people’s purchasing power, but especially the purchasing power of the working classes, has fallen rapidly. This situation is exacerbated by rapidly increasing unemployment, especially of young men and women. The Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response to it have also amplified the consequences of the existing economic crisis, as many workers are provided with insufficient relief, significantly below minimum wage levels. We witness the increased activity of worker movements’ around the country, even if they are currently in a dispersed state. Meanwhile, the polls show that support for Erdoğan and the current government has decreased markedly and consistently.

Due to the fear of potential popular unrest, the government has also engaged in campaigns to delegitimize the Boğaziçi protests. Such strategies are not new. Indeed, they are part of the government’s strategy of delegitimizing popular opposition, at least since the Gezi protests. The government labels all those who oppose its policies as “people who oppose to Turkey’s development” at best, and simply “terrorists” at worst. In turn, the government and its supporters are deemed to be authentic manifestations of the “national will”. In this context, all political issues are eventually cast as “national security” problems, which in turn leads to increased legitimization of police violence and the criminalization of dissidents and social movements. Most of those opposed to the government, not least feminists, socialists, and environmentalists, have been called “terrorists” by state officials at some point. In addition, the government and its supporters organize hate campaigns against sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities relatively easily. Kurds, the LGBTİ+ community, Alevis, and other minorities are targeted, and confronted with hate speech by state officials, including the president and his ministers. These campaigns are buttressed and enabled by the government’s control over the conventional media and by its trolls on social media. Nowadays, similar campaigns take place against students and academics of Boğaziçi; they are the new “terrorists” in the eyes of the ruling regime.

As soon as the resistance against the appointment of a trustee rector to Boğaziçi began to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the general public, the government tried to operationalize this strategy. One major example of this strategy was related to an art exhibition organized by students on Boğaziçi’s main campus during the protests. Among hundreds of artworks sent to the exhibition’s organizers, there was a collage work that include both the Kaaba (i.e. the building at the centre of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca) and LGBTI+ flags. A wide-ranging media campaign against this artwork began as a result. AKP officials participated in this campaign, claiming that the students had humiliated Islam and emphasizing once again the “secular elites versus Islamic masses” discourse, a discourse that has historically proven to be very useful in delegitimizing democratic demands and papering over social antagonisms that do not correspond to this duality. In the case of Boğaziçi, the government used this discourse to make the demand for a free, autonomous, and democratic university invisible, and tried to represent the protests as a movement targeting the religious values of Muslim people and Islam in general. With this political move, the regime sought to confine the resistance to the boundaries of a narrowly defined identity politics while reinforcing its own waning popular support.

Furthermore, LGBTİ+ students at Boğaziçi and the university’s LGBTİ+ Studies Club, which had nothing to do with the organization of the exhibition, were targeted as part of this backlash against the artwork. A large-scale hate campaign was conducted on social media, led by the ministry of interior, who called LGBTİ+ community “perverts”, and the president, who claimed that “there is no such thing as the LGBT”. As a result of this campaign of hate, two students who had organized the exhibition were arrested, and the LGBTİ+ Studies Club of the university was closed. However, the campaign against the LGBTİ+ community and the government’s efforts to discredit the resistance of students and academics at Boğaziçi have to a certain extent failed to succeed. A sign of this failure is a declaration made by a group calling itself “Muslim students of Boğaziçi University”, which has gained widespread popularity in the social media for strongly opposing the smear campaign and reiterating the demands of the resistance.

Despite the intense police violence, arbitrary detentions, and arrests, support for the Boğaziçi resistance is growing every day, and the government has not been able to delegitimize the protests although it has tried to do so with all its might. Every day, not only academics and students from different universities but also different social and occupational groups are making declarations in support of the protests. In this spirit, we would like to end our piece with the four basic demands of the resistance:

  1. All university rectors should be elected through democratic and participatory mechanisms.
  2. The appointed rector, Melih Bulu, should resign.
  3. Students who have been taken into custody and put under house arrest should be released immediately.
  4. The AKP government and government-backed groups should stop targeting students, academics, and the LGBTI+ community.


Duygun Ruben is a PhD student at Boğaziçi University’s Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History. Fikri Buber and Mahir Tamercan Ölmez are MA students at Boğaziçi University’s Atatürk Institute for Modern Turkish History.


[1] Erdoğan introduced the faculties without consulting faculty members at the university. The decision was taken overnight and in a highly unanticipated way. It is also the first time since the 1980 coup that new faculties in Boğaziçi have been established in such a top-down fashion.

[2] Two students who were jailed were released as of yesterday. We should also mention that these numbers change daily, and that they may not therefore be up to date when you read this piece. Up-to-date numbers may be accessed at

[3] Eight people died and close to ten thousand were wounded during the Gezi Park protests. For Amnesty International’s report, see

[4] The Gülenist movement is an Islamist movement/cult that has been active and highly influential not only in Turkey but also internationally. It has infiltrated various apparatus of Turkey’s state, including the police, judiciary, and the military. Although the Gülenists were initially allied with Erdoğan, a bitter war between them started in late 2013, which culminated in the failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016.

[5] Before this statutory decree, universities would hold an election in which faculty members participated, and then the president would appoint one among the three candidates.

[6] Boğaziçi University’s previous rector, Mehmed Özkan, was appointed by Erdoğan in November 2016. Erdoğan appointed Özkan despite the rectoral elections at Boğaziçi, in which Gülay Barbarosoğlu, the previous rector, won 86 percent of the vote. Students protested the appointment. However, many professors saw Özkan’s appointment as the lesser of two evils in the immediate post-coup attempt era, given that he was already a professor at the university and already active in the university administration. Students continued protesting Özkan during the annual graduation ceremonies by turning their backs to him as he made his ceremonial speech.


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