WHAT’S happened to higher education in California? Two academics there have attacked The Economist for presuming to advise the Turks how to vote in their forthcoming election. One is Richard Falk, Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Another is Hilal Elver, his wife, also at Santa Barbara.

They say:

The Economist leader headline in its June 4 issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economistwould know better than to advise US or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W Bush, Stephen Harper, or Binyamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

What’s so peculiar is that anyone who has a glancing familiarity with this bastion of elite opinion knows that, for good or ill, it has indeed advised American, Canadian and Israeli citizens how to cast their votes. Don’t professors do any homework nowadays? As for all that “paternalism” nonsense, I was dimly under the impression that Turkey had a colonialist past of its own.

Turkey’s bitter election

On the last lap

The ruling party heads for re-election after a polarising campaign

Jun 9th 2011 | ISTANBUL | from the print edition

Waving a flag for the opposition

IT IS now official: women should have babies and stay at home. That was how feminists greeted this week’s announcement by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he would scrap the ministry for women, along with seven other cabinet jobs. Coming days before the June 12th election, it has raised fears that a third term for Mr Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party could embrace a new puritanism.

Mr Erdogan suggests instead a ministry for “family and social policies…as we are a conservative democratic party, we need to strengthen the family structure.” His words set off alarm bells among those who recall the AK government’s previous efforts to criminalise adultery and Mr Erdogan’s calls for women to have at least three children. He is fiercely against day-care centres. Those who entrust their children to others, he said, would end up alone in old-age homes. “Do the maths,” snaps Hulya Gulbahar, a feminist lawyer. “He wants us to have three children and stay at home. In other words, no career for at least 15 years.”

Claims by the secular establishment that the AK party’s ultimate plan is to introducesharia law are plainly overblown. Yet such thinking lay behind the unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to ban the AK party in 2008. Among its supposed crimes was seeking to ease restrictions on the Islamic-style headscarf in universities, which have kept thousands of pious women from pursuing their education. In fact, since it came to power in 2002, the AK government has pushed through unparalleled reforms, giving women more rights than ever. Rape inside marriage is now a criminal offence. Penalties for “honour killings” of women who mix with men to whom they are not married have been stiffened. But Ms Gulbahar, who helped craft some of these measures, complains that Mr Erdogan “turned” after being re-elected for a second term of single-party rule in 2007.

His increasingly prurient tone may have encouraged a climate that has led to the sacking of Zeynep Aksu, a psychiatrist at a social-services centre in the Black Sea province of Samsun, because she refused to stop wearing short skirts. In January a headmaster in the southern province of Mersin provoked a furore after ordering male students to remain at least 45 centimetres from their female peers. An inquiry was launched only after a parliamentarian from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) petitioned the government. Yet the headmaster kept his job.

Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist running for parliament on the CHP ticket, published a survey last year arguing that such incidents reflect a countrywide lurch towards intolerance. She found that in many Anatolian provinces alcohol is no longer served and pressure to fast during Ramadan is on the rise. “The picture I encountered is truly alarming,” she concluded.

Yet there is another side to the story. As universities proliferate across the country, students from places like Izmir and Istanbul infect locals with their freewheeling ways. In Erzurum, an eastern backwater, girls and boys can be seen strolling hand in hand, for which they might until recently have been flogged. In Istanbul veiled girls can be spotted snogging with boyfriends on park benches. Sometimes, in short, Turkey seems to be growing simultaneously more conservative and more liberal.

A greater worry is Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent. Turkey has more imprisoned journalists than almost any other country (there were some 57 at the last count). A pair of students who unfurled a banner saying “we want free education” during a speech by Mr Erdogan have languished in jail for over a year on charges of “membership of a terrorist group.” And Mr Erdogan is increasingly fond of blasting his critics in public.

In the past week, this newspaper has been a target for daring to suggest in our June 4th issue that Turks should vote for the CHP to deny the AK party the two-thirds majority it needs unilaterally to rewrite the constitution. At successive rallies Mr Erdogan has accused The Economist of acting in concert with “a global gang” and taking orders from Israel. This may win him votes at home, but it will hardly add to his credibility in the West.

June 10th, 2011 – The Economist