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While Illinois Senator Barack Obama has certainly been the most attention-grabbing Harvard Law School alum with presidential aspirations in recent months, one fellow HLS graduate also has ambitions to lead his country someday.
Cuneyt Yuksel, a 1994 graduate of the Harvard Law School, will be seeking one of 550 seats in the Turkish National Parliament in the country’s July 22 election.
Although it would be Yuksel’s first elected political position, he said he has higher political aspirations.
“People are asking me to be minister and to take [a] position in the Cabinet,” said Yuksel, who is a member of the slightly conservative but secular Justice and Development Party, which currently holds the most seats in the Turkish Parliament.
“I hope once I am in the parliament to be very active in the government,” he said. “Maybe after a second election, I would try for prime minister.”
Yuksel, currently a professor at Bogazici University in Turkey, said his campaign has consumed virtually all of his time over the last month and a half.
Running for office from his hometown of Mardin in southeast Turkey, Yuksel is running on a very specific platform.
“I have three issues,” he said. “The first is education. The second is education. And the third is education.”
Though his plan to improve Turkey’s educational system is focused more on infrastructure—updating buildings and increasing the number of facilities for primary, elementary, and secondary schools—Yuksel said he’s using his own scholastic background as proof of his commitment to higher education.
“They see that I come from Harvard, the best university in the world,” said Yuksel, one of the Harvard Alumni Association’s regional directors for Europe. “I think the education system first should be improved, and then that will help solve all the other problems.”
Yuksel’s work towards his master’s thesis at Harvard and his Ph.D at Stanford involved exploring changes to the legal and economic systems of developing countries with the goal of fostering more growth in those places, especially through increased corporate cooperation on research and innovation.
While Turkey is currently adapting its legal system to European standards in hopes of gaining admission to the European Union, Yuksel said he hopes to implement some of the programs he wrote about in his theses.
“I am explaining my studies to the whole nation,” he said. “Turkey is ready for changes, and Turkey is trying to integrate itself into the world and the global economy.”
Bemis Professor of International Law Emeritus Detlev F. Vagts ’48—Yuksel’s adviser while at Harvard—said that, while he didn’t expect his former student to ever become involved in politics, he’s not completely surprised at the path Yuksel has taken.
“We have among our alumni all sorts of foreign leaders,” Vagts said. “He was a thoroughly competent student with a good record here, and he had a good deal of energy and ambition.”
Turkey is a unique nation in that it has very strong Islamic roots and an almost completely Muslim populous, while its government is strictly secular.
Although there’s much debate regarding whether the Turkish government should stay secular, Yuksel said he falls on the side of keeping tradition.
“I think especially with the modernization of Turkey,” he said, “our long history of secularism is a good example in the region.”
But Yuksel also said he’s aware that while the Turkish people may want a government free from Islam, they still want to practice their religion in their own homes.
“Turkey has no choice but to remain secular,” he said. “But its secularism should respect people’s beliefs.”
—Staff writer Nathan C. Strauss can be reached at email@example.com.
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