Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded quickly and aggressively to protests that broke out in cities across the country this spring, repeatedly denouncing the participants as terrorists and leaning on the full might of his security forces.
Once again on Wednesday, the police were out in force, using teargas to disperse a few hundred holdout protesters in Istanbul. But a parallel tactic has emerged. Erdogan is using the power of the purse — and in particular his government’s ability to dish out (and withhold) student loans — to discourage dissent. The new tactic likely reflects two interconnected goals: boosting a flagging national economy, and improving his political standing ahead of what he hopes will be election to a newly-empowered presidency next year.
Unlike the situation in the United States, where fierce ideological divisions threatened to hike rates on student borrowers across the board, Erdogan’s Higher Education Loans and Dormitory Institution (KYK) is apparently singling out those who participate in “resistance, boycotts, occupations, writing, painting [in public spaces], chanting slogans and the like,” and while that will surely antagonize his enemies in Turkey’s urban areas, it could actually reduce the fiscal impact of the protest explosion, which has been assumed to discourage tourism from the West, negatively impacting state coffers as well as the economy in general.
Such an approach reflects Erdogan’s confidence that his rural base is solidly behind him even as the cities remain tense and ready to rally at the next provocation. Indeed, the prime minister enjoys strong support throughout much of the country, and appears convinced that this method of clamping down is less likely to feed the beast, so to speak, than an aggressive police response, which has been known to counterproductively inspire additional activists to join the fray when outrages are broadcast on social media.
Will Erdogan’s more creative response to liberal protesters in his cities pay any dividends? It’s tough to say, but the gambit is unlikely to cost him any supporters, who presumably have little to fear from the regulations. What the student loan dance could do, though, is alienate moderates on the fence about Erdogan’s democratic legitimacy. And certainly, they will alarm Western observers who have been keeping an eye on Turkey’s political maturation with a bid for E.U. membership looming. After all, Erdogan’s actions are not those of a traditional democratic leader, but then again, Turkey’s is still a somewhat archaic political order, with wide gaps in income, education, and general world views between the rural folk and more Westernized inhabitants of cities.
So if the ability to distribute student loans represents an example of Erdogan’s complete control over Turkish institutions, and a form of soft power in contrast with the use of security forces, it’s also a potential third rail, one the prime minister will have to be careful to keep his distance from if he wants to take the next step in on the national (and international) stage.