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. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has instead emphasized Turkey’s historical role as an Islamic-world power since his party was first elected in 2002. That’s the backdrop for Turkey’s current political dramas, including a failed coup July 15 by army officers who said Erdogan was undermining democracy. Over the last three years, Erdogan had been tightening his grip on power, stifling debate while fighting accusations of corruption. That has polarized the nation and rattled investors, sending the currency to record lows. It also dimmed chances that Turkey — with more than 78 million people, almost all Muslims — could find a model that reconciled democratic secular government with Islam and join the European Union.
The July 15 revolt brought Erdogan's supporters onto the streets in a night of street battles and aerial bombardment that left more than 250 people dead. In the months that followed, more 100,000 soldiers, judges, academics and other officials were detained or suspended in a roundup of suspected sympathizers. The coup attempt accelerated Erdogan's bid to assert full control over the institutions of state. In January, parliament approved a package of constitutional amendments that would formally switch his once-ceremonial post of president into the center of power, paving the way for a referendum on the changes on April 16. The political influence of the military — a traditional defender of the country's secularist principles and the source of at least three takeovers since 1960 — has been curbed as part of Erdogan’s efforts. He has not been shy about his ambitions: Erdogan built a presidential palace four times the size of Versailles. Turkey is also suffering a wave of terrorist attacks and intensified fighting with Kurdish separatists from the country's largest ethnic minority. It's embroiled in the war in neighboring Syria and hosts more refugees than any other country.
In 2013, Erdogan 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 meant to roll back Ataturk’s secular legacy in favor of what he called a “pious generation.” Later that same year, Erdogan battled to defend his inner circle from corruption allegations. He has accused opponents — including those behind the July coup attempt — of being followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and government critic in self-imposed exile in the U.S. After a purge of the police and the judiciary in 2014, dozens of journalists were detained. In March 2016 a court replaced the management of the nation’s biggest newspaper. The government has widened oversight of the internet and blocked access to Twitter and YouTube at times, drawing criticism from the U.S. and the EU. Turkey’s relations with Europe have been antagonistic at various points in history. 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 negotiations started in 2005.
Opposition groups have denounced Erdogan as an increasingly autocratic leader. His clampdown after the failed coup and his efforts to muffle the media have been seen as a step back for the kind of civil liberties that would be a prerequisite to joining the EU. The central bank has also faced political pressure to keep interest rates low to revive a slowing economy, raising questions about its independence. Yet Erdogan is admired for building hospitals and schools in Turkey during his party’s 13-year rule, the longest period of political stability since the nation adopted a multiparty system in 1946. He remains popular among poorer Turks whose living standards have risen. The country’s annual economic growth has averaged 5 percent during Erdogan’s control, with foreign investors pouring about $58 billion into Turkish stocks and government bonds since 2006.
The Reference Shelf
- Q&As on the constitutional referendum, the role of the military, the reclusive imam Erdogan blames for the July coup attempt, and the fight over his extradition.
- A Bloomberg article on Erdogan's drive for unlimited powers, another on his popularity and a Businessweek piece that looked at the cost of his purge.
- Erdogan's political career was explored in this Bloomberg article.
- A QuickTake on the Kurds, the world's largest ethnic group without a state of their own.
- Bloomberg Businessweek explained how the June 2015 election amounted to a referendum on Erdogan’s rule.
- Bloomberg Markets traced the performance of Turkey’s economy in a May 2014 article and timeline.
- A 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
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Leah Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org