Turkey: An Economic Gem and Social Misfortune

taksimsquareTurkey, apart from its beautiful scenery and delicious Mediterranean cuisine, has been viewed as model of secularism and democracy in the Middle East.  Western nations often point to Turkey to demonstrate that a secular government is possible in a country with a majority Muslim population.  In addition, Turkey’s economy has soared in the last ten years, becoming a permanent member of the G-20.[1]  Its once agriculturally dependent economy has developed into an expansive one based on textile and car exports.  Foreign investors flocked to Turkey to tap into these new developing industries, adding to the country’s economic stability and international appeal.

Where did this model democracy go wrong?

This rapid economic growth, however, did not come without a price.  Socially, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, has held a tight grip on Turkey’s social expansion.  In his early years as Prime Minister, his efforts seemed to push the country in a positive direction, striving for accession into the European Union—an issue that Turkey has struggled with since the creation of the EU.  But more recently, his reign has caused a battle between Turkey’s secular identity and its Islamic heritage.  Historically, Turkey established it’s secular identity under its founder and leader Kemal Ataturk in 1924, with the first Turkish Constitution to impose a republican form of government.  Today, the 1982 Constitution governs the law; however, it has been amended so much that a new Constitution is being drafted to encompass a more comprehensive legal structure.

The discrepancy between Turkey’s secular identity and Islamic heritage is best viewed between the de facto and de jure law in Turkey.[2]  The de jure imposition of the constitution strives to preserve democracy and secularism, while de facto law under the current government seems to want to revive traditional Islamic values and implement them into the state’s ideology.  This is what lies at the epicenter of Turkish social issues at the moment—a nation attempting to hold on to its secular identity, coupled with a Prime Minister desperately scraping away at Ataturk’s secular foundation.

It is not a story of trees.

On May 28, 2013, a small crowd of people gathered around Gezi Park in Takism Square, under the notion of saving the park from destruction.  The issue was that the government had supported the annihilation of one of Istanbul’s last “green areas” in order to build a new shopping mall. By May 31, the small crowd had grown into a wave of people from all different social, religious, and economic backgrounds.  Anyone who knew the political climate in Turkey and recent events leading up to the decision to build a shopping mall over Gezi Park, knew that this unrest was not about the trees; it was about so much more. In a city so driven by tourism and consumerism, it is not a surprise that Istanbul already supports almost four hundred shopping malls and centers; thus, it seemed counterintuitive that the government would push so hard to build one more.  Erdoğan’s desire to push Turkey back into its Islamic bubble was a major underlying factor in the tension, and his attempt to push forward with the building of the mall was the tipping point for many.  Just a few months earlier, Erdoğan and his cabinet had passed a law banning the sale of alcohol past ten o’clock p.m.—a move that many understood as being a slow progression towards implementing conservative Islamic values.

What are the economic implications of the protests?

In reaction to the protests, Erdoğan elicited his supporters and held a few rallying speeches to prove that he had continued support from his people.  Post Erdoğan’s rallying speeches, on June 9, 2013, however, Turkish stocks fell and the Turkish lira weakened against the dollar.  On June 7, the lira had plummeted to its weakest standing point against the euro-dollar basket since October 2011.[3]

In addition to the fluctuating market, the protests have resulted in a decline of investor confidence.  Investor confidence is generally attained by looking at the country’s portfolio which contains information regarding the political climate and government stabilıty.  For Turkey, such confidence has been steadily increasing in recent years and this confidence is reflected in the surge of foreign investment in the country.  Yet, despite this surge, Turkey’s economic success is relatively shaky and remains contingent on the stability of the Middle East and of Europe—its top two trading partners.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that the protests would have some effect on Turkey’s outward image, and naturally harm investor confidence.

Nonetheless, in the recent weeks there has been a huge decline in protests and the police no longer are resorting to violent, anti-humanitarian rights violating tactics like spraying tear gas at protestors, aiming gas canisters at people’s bodies and faces, and spraying protestors directly with water cannons. The violence has subdued, but the political climate is still heated.  People remain dissatisfıed with Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime and are hoping for a new political face come the next elections in 2014.

[1] The G-20, or the Group of Twenty is a gathering of finance ministers and central bank governors from twenty of the world’s largest economies, which often come together to discuss international financial growth and stability.

[2] De jure is a term meaning the matter of law, while de facto is used to refer to what is actually being done in practice.  These terms are used to discuss the discrepancies in a legal system between what the law says in writing, and how much of the law, if any, practitioners are applying in reality.

[3] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Lebanon/2013/Jun-11/219967-moodys-warns-of-risk-from-turkey-protests.ashx#axzz2XmPlQfno

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