A Brief History of Today’s Turkey, Part 2: Inside Turkey’s Erdoğan Era
By Yoni Pinto
Note: This article represents the Part Two of a two-part Series. You can read Part One here.
Photograph of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via The Guardian
Following the 2003 election of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul, who had just resigned as Prime Minster, was appointed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gul’s internationally well-received image, alongside AKP’s pro-Western pro-US stance prompted widespread Western support for Turkey and its new government. A one party government in Turkey created an image of political stability unlike any Turkey had seen in a long time.
As the previous government was not in place long enough to fully implement the strict economic revival policy laid out by Kemal Dervis, AKP had full control over what course of action to follow. Dervis’s plan called for a more independent central bank as well as reforms to state banks.
The new government decided to carry on Kemal Dervis’s plan exactly as it was planned out. The steps to combat the economic problems worked well: Turkey’s economy recovered quickly with economic growth surging in 2002, while inflation came down from around 70% to 12%. To investors around the world, Turkey appeared fresh and profitable with its economic reforms. This new image of Turkey prompted the foreign investment that had disappeared before, contributing to its steady economic revival.
The influx of foreign funds meant the country now had resources to take steps to rebuild its infrastructure. Over the following years, the highway system grew more than 10,000 kilometers while public transportation was greatly improved. Healthcare system reforms were put in place and the availability of education was widely increased, physically and financially. Construction was booming everywhere in the country and economic growth was increasing steadily.
These infrastructural developments led to a significant betterment of lower-to-middle class lives around the country, garnering significant AKP support from these communities who had been suffering the hardest from the previous economic instability.
Throughout the years leading up to the 2007 general elections, AKP also held its Islamic policies in check, largely suppressing critics about the non-secular nature of the party. Up until 2007, the party stayed away from controversial policies regarding Islamic issues. Laws regarding sales of alcohol and the ban on women wearing headscarves in official capacities were left mostly untouched.
Though there were numerous critics of AKP’s Islamic values, they did not have much to show for it – AKP had not acted like other Islamic parties before.
In the months running up to the 2007 election, AKP appeared to have gotten even more popular, most likely due to improving the living conditions for lower and middle income communities. The increase of support from these communities was very evident as AKP’s percentage vote increased by more than 10 percentage points to 46.5%. Although AKP lost some seats due to the Nationalist Movement Party breaking the 10% threshold, its victory was arguably even more resounding than in 2002.
Following the elections, AKP faced a closure case in 2008 – the third such case against an Islamic party in less than 10 years. But unlike the Welfare and Virtue Parties that had come before, the AKP avoided closure – by one vote. The court instead voted to take away AKP’s state funding, essentially ruling that the party had become less secular, but not enough to warrant a closure. This was the most significant of the hurdles AKP managed to jump over in Erdogan’s quest to build a “new Turkey.”
The results of the 2007 election established AKP’s presence in Turkish politics and gave the party political courage to start pursuing more controversial policies, allowing it to take action more open action towards realizing its Islamic fundamentals values.
During his tenure as Prime Minster, Erdogan’s Islamist policies became more and more obvious with remarks about alcohol, headscarves and even abortion making their ways into the headlines.
Also during this period, Turkey’s relations with many countries deteriorated: relations soured heavily with Israel over various incidents, while the EU accession talks floated towards a limbo as the Union distanced itself from the country. The United States openly criticized Erdogan’s policies multiple times and President Obama publically acknowledged problematic situations in the country.
The number of journalists imprisoned increased exponentially, placing Turkey all the way at the bottom of many different press freedom rankings. YouTube and Twitter were shut down multiple times. Teenagers and celebrities were tried, and in some cases even punished, for simply criticizing the Erdogan on social media.
Demonstrations against the government became common following the Gezi Park Protests of the summer of 2013. Disproportionate police responses against protesters came to be normal, leading to a culture of wariness against the policemen around the country.
Even with all this, Erdogan’s growing influence over the people led him to becoming the first President to be elected with a public vote in Turkey, earning more than half the country’s support in the 2014 Election.
However now, it appears that the economic growth that had been present for so much of the past decade seems to be slowing down to levels very near zero. Turkey’s currency is the weakest it has ever been against the US dollar. Erdogan has often blamed an “interest rate lobby” for this economic slowdown, and has also repeatedly attempted to pressure the central bank, but to no avail. Economically, Turkey’s definitely weakening.
In a 2011 campaign speech for the AKP, then Prime Minister Erdogan had announced a set of goals he would lead Turkey into achieving by the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, 2023. Of these, the most significant was putting Turkey into the top 10 economies of the world. To Erdogan, one of the first steps in achieving that goal was raising Turkey’s GDP to 1 trillion USD by 2014. The recent economic slump shows that that goal was not reached.
Having failed to reach economic goals, developed political uncertainty and grown somewhat of a social divide between the secular and the religious, Turkey’s future is an interesting question. AKP and Erdogan, although with all these negative developments dragging them down, are still most likely going to be in power for the foreseeable future.
With Erdogan in power, the question remains: can Turkey recover and be the ideal Middle Eastern democracy it was once thought to be? Or is it going to go through a political shift once again, like it did in the beginning of the century?by