Degree of uncertainty? Turkish row over Erdogan academic record

Ankara: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who this month picked up no less than the 44th honorary doctorate of his political career, likes nothing more than to give one of his trademark political speeches in full academic regalia.

But does the Turkish strongman, who served as premier from 2003-2014 before moving to the presidency, actually have a university degree?

Despite unequivocal denials by the president and his office, the Turkish opposition has seized on a new spate of recurring claims that he does not.

The argument is not merely an idle amusement — the Turkish president must have completed and passed a full four-year university degree course in order to hold the office.

Erdogan's fulsome array of honorary degrees — with his latest such award coming from Makerere University in the Ugandan capital Kampala -- has provoked mockery from opponents, who point out that US President Barack Obama can only boast of six honorary doctorates.

'Diploma or resignation'

 Degree of uncertainty? Turkish row over Erdogan academic record

Erdogan. Reuters

According to his official biography, Erdogan received his university degree in 1981 after four years of study at the faculty of economic and administrative sciences of the Marmara University in Istanbul.

But Turkey's association of university professors UNIVDER claimed last week that Erdogan did not have a full university degree, but the equivalent of a college diploma.

It said he studied at an institution that only became part of Marmara University in 1983, two years after the president says he graduated.

A former prosecutor who now heads a magistrates' association, Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu, filed a complaint with Ankara prosecutors and Turkey's election council saying Erdogan should be disqualified from his position with immediate effect, as this made him ineligible.

The issue has become a new rallying cause for opponents seeking chinks in the president's armour, inspiring Twitter hashtags #diplomasidasahte (your diploma is also false) and #yadiplomayaistifa (either the diploma or resignation).

A deputy from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), with heavy irony, proposed submitting a bill to parliament to remove the requirement for the president to have a university education and save Turkey further embarrassment.

"Despite all the discussions, President Erdogan has yet to give a clear explanation on this issue," Murat Emir was quoted as saying by Turkish media.

"We have made such a proposal to stop further damage to our country's reputation being made by the person of Erdogan."

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) was sent a notarised copy of Erdogan's diploma after a request to Turkey's election committee, but said it would continue a legal battle to find the real diploma.

'Unfair and baseless'

Erdogan is deeply proud of his humble roots in a working class Istanbul suburb, and that he attended a so-called Imam Hatip school whose main task was to give a religious education.

His political image is built on the story of the pious boy from a poor background who took on the well-educated secular elite — and won.

The controversy has erupted as Erdogan has blasted opposition academics at universities as traitors for not supporting the military's offensive against Kurdish militants, indicating he would like to see a purge of disloyal lecturers.

But the president also has no intention of downplaying his academic achievements, and both he and his administration have moved to rubbish the claims.

"What do you want, that we find 10 million copies of these degrees and send them to the whole world?" presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said angrily.

The university — whose rector Mehmet Emin Arat is a close ally of Erdogan — rejected the claims that the degree was falsified as "unfair" and "baseless".

Arat published on the university website a lengthy document outlining the university's history going back to Ottoman times and Erdogan's academic career, including his graduation on April 4, 1981.

Erdogan has portrayed the issue as a tired tactic by his opponents who have exhausted all other forms of attack, saying his record of transforming Turkey while in office speaks for itself.

"Despite all the explanations and declarations that have been made on this subject, some people want to revive the debate," Erdogan said last week."Whatever you want to do, our works speak for themselves."

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Updated Date: Jun 15, 2016 10:46:15 IST