Turkey straddles Europe and Asia with a political identity that’s likewise divided. The father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, dreamed of achieving the “highest level of civilization” as a western-looking secular state. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has instead emphasized Turkey’s historical role as an Islamic-world power since his party was elected in 2002. That’s the backdrop for many of Turkey’s current political dramas, including riots in the summer of 2013 over the future of Gezi Park in Istanbul, an ancient city that’s been home to Ottoman sultans and Byzantine emperors. As Erdogan fights accusations of corruption, he has stifled debate and strengthened his grip on power, polarizing the nation. That’s rattled investors, sending the currency tumbling to a record low in January. It has also dimmed the chances that Turkey – with 77 million people, almost all Muslims — could find a model that reconciled democratic secular government with Islam and join the European Union.
Erdogan won the country’s first direct presidential election Aug. 10 with 51.8 percent of the vote, cementing his position as the country’s most dominant leader since Ataturk. While the job has been largely a ceremonial role, it offers Erdogan more control over the military and the courts. He will also try to change the constitution to add more executive powers. Last year, a violent police crackdown on peaceful protests at Gezi Park drew condemnation and fueled public anger. Political tensions erupted in December when a graft probe targeting Erdogan’s government became public. He responded with a purge of the police and judiciary, accusing opponents of an attempted coup. Then in the local equivalent of a Watergate scandal, a deluge of documents and audio tapes that purport to be evidence from the probe were posted on Twitter. Their authenticity can’t be verified and the government says the recordings are assembled by montage. Turkey temporarily blocked access to Twitter and YouTube ahead of a regional election held March 30, drawing criticism from the EU and the U.S. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was handed a victory in the poll, expanding its share of the popular vote to about 44 percent. The party remains popular among poorer Turks whose living standards have risen. The country’s annual economic growth has averaged 5 percent during Erdogan’s rule, with foreign investors pouring $78 billion into Turkish stocks and bonds since 2006.
Turkey’s relations with Europe have been antagonistic at times. The armies of Suleyman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna in 1529. The Ottomans did so again in 1683, and occupied much of the Balkans until the end of World War I. Western influences were strong from the 18th century onward, leading to Ataturk’s reforms in the 1920s – which included forsaking a Perso-Arabic script used for 1,000 years and the adoption of the Latin alphabet. Ties were tightened in the years that followed. Turkey has been part of NATO since 1952 and an associate member of the EU since the 1960s. Efforts to become a full EU member have floundered since membership negotiations started in 2005, resuming only in November after a three-year break. Erdogan forged closer links with Middle Eastern countries, which took an increasing share of Turkish trade as European economies slumped. He lifted curbs on religious expression, such as the wearing of headscarves, put in place when the army was Turkey’s dominant political force. By giving a voice to an underclass of Islamic conservatives, Erdogan is rolling back Ataturk’s secular legacy in favor of what he says will be a “pious generation.” He has also engaged Kurdish militants in peace talks.
Opposition groups denounce Erdogan as an increasingly autocratic leader. Transforming the role of President would allow him to consolidate power. His clampdown on the media and the Internet is seen as a step back for the kind of civil liberties that would be a prerequisite to joining the EU. Yet voters admire Erdogan for building hospitals and schools in Turkey during his 11-year rule, the longest period of political stability since the nation adopted a multi-party system in 1946. The scandals have exacerbated a slowdown in economic growth and required Turkey to increase interest rates to stem an outflow of capital. They have also exposed rifts among the Islamist groups that first swept him to power.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Markets article from May 2014 on Turkey’s economy and a timeline of its performance during Erdogan’s rule.
- 2012 Mideast Quarterly article, “Changes in Turkey, What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?”
- Report on a 2010 Oxford University conference, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy in a Changing World.”
- Goodreads page for the 1969 biography of Ataturk, “Ataturk, The Rebirth of a Nation,” and the 2001 Orhan Pamuk novel, “My Name is Red.”
- Metropolitan Museum of Art page on European influences at the 19th-century Ottoman court.
(First published Jan. 28, 2014)
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