When the Party is Over

How foreign and domestic policy spillovers are pushing Turkey towards the abyss.

A decade and a half under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is coming to a close. During many of these years, Turkey resembled a party zone for many. The economy was booming at average growth rates well above five percent, the country’s exporters were expanding into Africa and Asia and Turkish Airlines was following suit. Many of these businessmen supported charitable Islamic work and schools of the Hizmet network, a moderate Islamic missionary movement comparable to World Vision. Riding on this wave of growing business relations and educational institutions, Turkish missions abroad proliferated. Between 2009 and 2013, for instance, the Foreign Ministry opened 23 new embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. Boosted by this growing presence in the world, and by an almost triumphant global discourse (shared by not all but many analysts) of Turkey as a model country combining Islamic tradition, democratic maturity, and economic vibrancy, Turkish leaders acted increasingly self-confident and with the aim of carving out some regional autonomy to its actions. Even though the conservative political and business elites close to the AKP tend to be teetotalers in public, Istanbul became a party capital of sorts, with thousands of bars, restaurants, hotels, and seaside venues catering to everyone with money. At the same time, another more youthful and less commercialized nightlife and cultural activity prospered in the many pockets of Istanbul’s old town neighborhoods.

It seemed that the AKPs business policy made the impossible possible: massive growth rates under a neoliberal economic policy that manages to increase re-distribution through well-funded public services. Under the almost 15 years of the AKP in government, a universal health care system emerged that enabled millions of people to receive high quality health provision. The education sector boomed with the establishment of dozens of state and private universities all over the country. The ecstatic and not always well-conceived growth also created opportunistic spaces of freedom. Many brilliant young academics with PhDs from leading schools in the US and UK, often with critical research on Turkey’s recent history, were welcomed by eager founding rectors hoping to advance their institutions in the international academic landscape. Even scholars of Kurdish politics and culture, who would never have been accepted to Turkish universities less than 20 years ago, were invited to establish new departments.

The party was hence not limited to the burgeoning new middle class thriving on public tenders, though they might have been celebrating the most. Pretty much everybody in Turkey’s notoriously divided and unequal society had every reason to be hopeful. The ascent of the urban poor to a modest middle class status predates the AKP era by several years, though its most visible effects were felt since the early 2000s. A 2014 World Bank Report evidenced a growth of the middle class between 1993 and 2010 from 18 percent of society to 41 percent. This is, by any means, an impressive example of middle class growth, whose effects have become noteworthy. Turkey is objectively and significantly richer, more developed, more educated, and healthier than two decades ago.

So why would the party stop now, when this growth and development could easily continue, if at a slightly less frantic pace? In most cases, one would turn to the economy for answers. And sure, during the early 2000s, the AKP government was helped by global economic conditions that do not exist anymore: a relatively strong European economy before the series of financial and economic crises, the availability of “cheap” money from economies in search of investment opportunities. All these certainly helped to fuel Turkey’s economic rise. Yet, as with many instances in Turkey’s recent history, also this time it is politics, and more precisely, personalized power politics, that risks to usher in a period of economic slowdown, eventual stagnation, maybe even contraction. A forceful relapse into the “lost years” of the 1990s, when a war against Kurdish nationalists spiraled out of control and the economy retracted, is in fact happening as we speak.

We are speaking of an unfortunate coincidence of both structural and short term forces that work towards a crisis of larger proportions in the interconnected spheres of politics and economy. Starting with the political realm, the causal connections of crisis are clear: the 2000s bonanza has created a political-economic arrangement marked by clientelism and a system of mutual favors of business and the political class. This growth machine made the state, and particularly Prime Minister and later President Erdogan, the central operator in an increasingly state-centric and politicized growth strategy geared towards crony capitalists turning from production to mining, real estate, and infrastructure construction. Increasingly unstable and vulnerable, this system came under multiple challenges from within and without. Increasingly exploitative business practices led to shocking levels in the number of lethal work accidents (with several large scale mine explosions), while the constructions of large infrastructure projects like dams and hydroelectric power plants provoked ecological protest movements. All these simmering tensions came to the fore with the Gezi protests in May/June 2013, which became the symbolic watershed, after which the AKP has ceased to be a diverse party based on a coalition with several political traditions and turned into an instrument for the personalized power of Erdogan.

Yet, even before the Gezi protests, Erdogan’s power grab had already begun. By the 2011 elections, which the AKP won with almost 50 percent, most former allies of the AKP have been pushed out of the party. This included liberals and the non-religious right, but also the Hizmet movement, which has played the central role in catapulting Turkey onto the world stage, through its sometimes opaque but nevertheless impressive network of businesses, more than 1,000 schools operating globally, and publication chains including the Zaman newspaper. By 2013, with a series of leaks suggesting that Erdogan was deeply implicated in a corrupt triangle of state actors, pro-government businesses, and media companies, the Hizmet network became Erdogan’s prime enemy. A destructive campaign was unleashed against this most important factor of Turkish soft power abroad.

In terms of structural constraints, Turkey’s middle income trap is the most noteworthy: Turkey was almost poised to become a high-income country, but neither its educational investments, nor its institutional set-up have been adjusted in order to facilitate the transition from low- to medium-tech industries to value-added high-tech products. A Brookings report from February 2015 cites as the real challenge for Turkey “the creation of the institutional prerequisites of a high-income country.” Since then, however, Turkey’s institutions have suffered from massive interventions by the government, which has effectively manned them with their handpicked and often under-qualified appointees. Newspapers, TV stations, and companies have been taken into state administration on the pretext that their owners were supporting the Hizmet movement.

All these constraints taken together would have sufficed to derail Turkey’s overall success story. Still, it is the combined effect of today’s President Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy takeover that adds a sense of tragedy to an already crisis-prone maze. Erdogan sees an executive presidency without checks and balances as his only way of survival. To push this agenda forward, he has broken with democratic convention and ordered a repeat election, after the AKP lost its 49,8 percent majority. In the meantime, he ended the peace process with the Kurdish movement and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, successfully banking on the nationalist hysteria, which the renewed war in the country’s southeast has unleashed. He is now pushing for a referendum for the executive presidency. The foreign policy arena has long slipped out of the hands of former Foreign and now Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. It is now dominated by overstretch, blunders, and jingoism, with Syria at the center. The fallout particularly with Russia after the downing of a Russian fighter plane is well known, but the real effects are still incalculable. Suffice to say that summer holiday bookings are down by at least 40% in 2016 in what is a 34 bn USD industry.

The party, therefore, really is over for now. Despite the civil-war like scenes in the Kurdish Southeast where hundreds of civilians have been killed in cross fire between security forces and Kurdish fighters, the country looks just like a normal place. Sadly, the institutions have been hollowed out so thoroughly, and democratic processes have been suspended so effectively, that a little hit can cause massive destruction. This is why the government is very nervous. So nervous, that it unleashed a terror campaign against 1,128 academics, who signed a petition against human rights abuses by Turkish security forces in the Kurdish Southeast. Many have already lost their work, while most universities are now conducting disciplinary proceedings against the signatories.

The ingredients are all there for a major— possibly existential—crisis in Turkey at a time, when both the European Union and the United States have priorities elsewhere. This crisis will not only undo many of the achievements of the better years under the AKP. Its effects will be felt particularly in Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the European Commission, would be well advised to move beyond their anxious fixation on the refugee crises—as important as this may be for the unsettled European voting publics—and reengage the AKP government to avert a further meltdown in Turkey. A failure would be yet another blow to the European idea and the relevance of the EU as a regional, let alone global power.

Kerem Öktem

Professor for Southeast Europe and Modern Turkey at the University of Graz, Austria, and Associate of the Centre for International Studies at the University of Oxford.

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