By Daniel Pipes, Washington Times
Rebellion has shaken Turkey since May 31. Is it comparable to the Arab upheavals that overthrew four rulers since 2011, to Iran’s Green Movement of 2009 that led to an apparent reformer being elected president last week, or perhaps to Occupy Wall Street, which had negligible consequences?
The unrest marks a deeply important development with permanent implications. Turkey has become a more open and liberal country in which leaders face democratic constraints as never before. How much it changes Turkey depends primarily on the economy.
China-like material growth has been the main achievement of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the party he heads, the AKP. Personal income has more than doubled in the decade that he has been in power, changing the face of the country. As a visitor to Turkey since 1972, I have seen the impact of this growth in almost every area of life, from what people eat to their sense of Turkish identity.
This impressive growth explains the AKP’s increased share of the national vote in its three elections, from 34 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2007 to a shade less than 50 percent in 2011. It also explains how, after 90 years of the military serving as the ultimate political power, the party was able to bring the armed forces to heel.
At the same time, two vulnerabilities have become more evident, especially since the June 2011 elections, jeopardizing Mr. Erdogan’s continued domination of the government:
Dependence on foreign credit. To sustain consumer spending, Turkish banks have borrowed heavily abroad, and especially from supportive Sunni Muslim sources. The resulting account deficit creates so great a need for credit that the private sector alone needs to borrow $221 billion this year, or nearly 30 percent of the country’s $775 billion gross domestic product. Should the money stop flowing into Turkey, the party (pun intended) will be over, possibly leading the stock market to collapse, the currency to plunge and the economic miracle to come to a screeching halt.
Mr. Erdogan’s sultan-style understanding of his democratic mandate. The prime minister sees his election — and especially the one in 2011, when the AKP won half the popular vote — as a carte blanche to do whatever he pleases until the next vote. He indulges his personal emotions (recall his confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009), meddles in the tiniest matters (his decision on the use of a city park prompted the current turmoil), assumes the role of a social engineer (telling married couples to bear three or more children), involves Turkey in an unpopular foreign adventure (Syria), and demonizes the half of the electorate that did not vote for him (calling them beer guzzlers who copulate in a mosque). This attitude has won the fervent support of his once-downtrodden constituency, but also has wrought the fury of the growing numbers of Turks who resent his authoritarianism, as well as the criticism …read more