Rebellion has shaken Turkey since May 31. Is it comparable to the Arab upheavals that have overthrown four rulers since 2011; to Iran’s Green Movement of 2009, which led to an apparent reformer’s 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, and its leaders face democratic constraints as never before. But how much this unrest will be able to change the role of Islam in Turkey depends primarily on the economy.
Material growth like China’s has been the main achievement of 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.
That impressive growth explains the AKP’s increased share of the national vote — from 34 percent (2002) to 46 percent (2007) to a shade under 50 percent (2011). Turkey’s growth also explains how, after 90 years of the military’s serving as the ultimate political power, the party was able to bring the armed forces to heel.
At the same time, two vulnerabilities that jeopardize Erdogan’s continued domination of the government have become more evident, especially since the June 2011 elections.
The first is dependence on foreign credit. To sustain consumer spending, Turkish banks have borrowed heavily abroad, and especially from supportive Sunni Muslim sources. The resulting current-account deficit creates so great a need for credit that the private sector alone needs to borrow $221 billion in 2013, or nearly 30 percent of the country’s $775 billion GDP. Should the money stop flowing into Turkey, the party (pun intended) is over, possibly causing the stock market to collapse, the currency to plunge, and the economic miracle to come to a screeching halt.
The second is Erdogan’s sultan-like understanding of his democratic mandate. The prime minister sees his election victories — especially the one in 2011, when the AKP won half the popular vote — as carte blanche to do whatever he pleases until the next vote. He indulges his personal emotions (recall his confrontation with Shimon Peres in 2009), meddles in the tiniest matters (his deciding the use of a city park prompted the current turmoil), engages in social engineering (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 drawn the criticism of Europe’s leaders. German chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced herself “appalled” by the recent police crackdown.
These two weaknesses point to the importance of the economy for the future of Erdogan, the AKP, and the country. Should Turkey’s finances weather the demonstrations, the Islamist program that lies at the heart of the AKP’s platform will continue to advance, if more cautiously. Perhaps Erdogan himself will remain leader, becoming the country’s president with newly enhanced powers next year; or perhaps his party will tire of him and — as happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990 — push him aside in favor of someone who can carry out the same program without provoking so much hostility.
But if “hot money” flees Turkey, if foreign investors go elsewhere, and if Persian Gulf patrons cool on the AKP, then the demonstrations could end AKP rule and rupture the drive toward Islamism and the application of Islamic law. Infighting within the party, especially between Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, or within the Islamist movement, especially between the AKP and Fethullah Gulen’s powerful movement, could weaken the Islamists. More profound, the many non-Islamist voters who voted for the AKP’s sound economic stewardship might abandon the party.
Payroll employment is down by 5 percent in the past year. Real consumer spending in the first quarter of 2013 fell by 2 percent over 2012. Since the demonstrations started, the Istanbul stock market is down 10 percent and interest rates are up about 50 percent. To assess the future of Islamism in Turkey, watch these and other economic indicators.