RaboResearch - Economic Research

Turkey: political and social situation

Economic Report


Located in both Europe and Asia, Turkey is often regarded as the bridge between east and west. However, how Turkey is viewed by the world and how it views itself is not merely dictated by location, but also by the county’s cultural and demographic make-up. In addition to accommodating large groups of many different minorities, Turkey has long struggled to combine the liberal economic principles and a view of modernity mostly ascribed to the West, with its other, Islamic, identity. Meanwhile, the struggle to create a national identity has come at the expense of non-Muslim minorities (like the Kurdish and Alevi populations), which have been frequently terrorized by both elected governments and military regimes. This Special Report considers Turkey’s current social and political situation, as well as the challenges ahead.

APK’s rise to power

The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 (and again in 2007 and 2011), drastically altered both domestic and foreign politics. The success of the moderately Islamic AKP, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, challenged the secular-oriented military, which had long held a firm grip on power. Tensions mounted in 2007, when Erdogan announced Abdullah Gül’s nomination for president. To the military, the nomination of a man who had once promoted a political Islam was the final straw. Nonetheless, for the first time in Turkey’s history, the military was unable to overthrow the government. Instead, the AKP went on to win the early elections in 2007, while the military became the target of a long series of trials, which signaled the first step of its demise. After that, a number of constitu­tional reforms further curtailed the military’s power.

In addition to its success in overpowering the military, the AKP government also made other significant contributions to the development of Turkey’s democracy. Partly motivated by its desire to gain EU membership, the AKP abolished the civilian-military courts, where civilians could be tried for political crimes, and abolished the death penalty. It also altered the anti-terrorism law, such that it became harder to prosecute individuals for voicing their opi­nion, or to ban political parties. Furthermore, the power of labor unions was greatly en­hanced. The reforms also benefitted Turkey’s various minorities. They gained the right to form political parties and participate in elec­tions. In addition, Turkey’s Kurds finally gained the right to teach and broadcast in their own language.

Notwithstanding these accomplishments, the rise of the AKP also has a darker side. The above-mentioned efforts to increase partici­pation in Turkey’s democracy are sharply contrasted by the AKP’s and Erdogan’s console­dation of power, often at the expense of civil rights. The most infamous example is the government’s treatment of journalists. Reporters that are perceived as a treat to the AKP, or Erdogan, are frequently jailed. Their chances of receiving a fair trial are subse­quent­ly limited by the fact that it is legal to jail journalists for up to three years without a trial. Unsurprisingly, Turkey ranks only 154th out of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom Index. However, journalists are not the only ones suffering from this repression, ordinary Turks are targeted as well. Despite the improvements to the anti-terrorism laws, it remains possible for the government to jail citizens that question the government or openly support the Kurds. The result is a high level of self-censorship, which clearly under­mines Turkey’s progress in becoming a mature democracy.

Another frequently voiced concern is that the AKP would be seeking to establish a political Islam. Indeed, especially in the last few years, the AKP introduced some policies that would support this view. These include the education reforms that will allow children to obtain vocational training after only four years of primary schooling. It is believed that this policy was designed to allow parents to transfer their children to Islamic schools after four years (instead of the current eight years). However, although some concerns are indeed justified, there is little evidence to suggest that the AKP intends to bring Islam back into politics.

Despite the repressive nature of the AKP government, the party is still very popular and stands to win the local, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014 and 2015. In part, this almost certain victory is the result of the fact that the opposition is fragmented and there does not appear to be one opposition party able to capture a majority. Nonetheless, if it is to remain in power, AKP will have to ease concerns regarding its treatment of mino­rities and the role of the Islam in its political agenda.

The future of Turkey’s democracy

For the next five years, a number of issues will help shape or break Turkey’s democracy and determine the degree of political stability. The first relates to the issues addressed above. Assuming the AKP will stay in power for some time to come, its treatment of both minorities and critics will determine Turkey’s democratic progress.

In the run up to the elections in 2014-5, the AKP is expected to take a more conciliatory stance towards the country’s Alevi and Kurdish minorities. However, this is unlikely to be more than window dressing. In contrast, the govern­ment’s repression of critics is likely to continue. In fact, we do not think that this situation will improve much without pressure from abroad. Previously, Turkey’s desire to become a mem­ber of the European Union (EU) formed the main catalyst for any progress in the area of civil rights. However, after a series of stalled negotiations, it became apparent that the road to EU membership would be long and cumber­some. Since Turkey applied for membership in 2005, only 12 of the 35 required policy chap­ters of the EU Association Agreement have been opened, while Turkey was only able to fulfill the requirements of one chapter. One of the issues blocking progress is the Cyprus conflict. And, more recently, the economic crisis in the EU has shifted the Union’s atten­tion inward. As a result, Turkey’s accession has become a distant dream, rather than a short-term reality.

Another important factor determining Turkey’s democratic future will be the content of the country’s new constitution. The current consti­tution dates back to 1980. It was drafted by the military and, consequently, heavily restricts democratic and civil rights. It is there­fore no surprise that the creation of a new, civil constitution is one of the requirements for EU accession.

In 2011, the four parliamentary parties esta­blished a commission to draft the new consti­tution. From the onset, the AKP has stated that it wishes to cooperate with all parties and draft a constitution that is built on consensus. Nonetheless, despite this initial intention, it has grown increasingly uncooperative. Specifically the role of civil and minority rights in the constitution remains a point of discussion, with the AKP especially unwilling to grant extra rights to the Kurds.

The second point of contention is whether Turkey should be a parliamentary democracy, or a republic. Recently, the AKP, favoring a republic, issued a proposal that would transfer much of the powers currently held by the prime minister to the president and make it possible for the president to be elected directly by the public. Although such a system is not uncommon, the fact that its design is largely inspired by Erdogan’s wish to run for president in the upcoming elections is worrisome. Whether the AKP will get its way remains to be seen. The party lost its supermajority in 2011 (albeit by a small margin) and is thus forced to cooperate to some extent with the other three parties. In addition, the new constitution has to be voted on by the public. This vote should take place in the first half of 2013, but at least before the end of 2013.

The Kurdish problem

Although this report is far too short to do justice to the complexities of the decades-old conflict between Turkey’s governments and the Kurdish minority, a small recap is in order. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey, successive governments have struggled to create a national identity. This goal was often attained through a process of forced assimilation, which affected the Kurdish and Alevi minorities most of all. The result is decades of social and economic repression that, naturally, fuelled grievances and only deepened the divide between the Kurds and the rest of Turkey.

The conflict intensified when the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, launched its first attack on Turkish territory, in 1984. At the time, their main goal was to capture a part of Turkey, which was to become a Kurdish country. Since then, the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government has been ongoing, often fuelled by regional events (such as the Iraq war). The election of the AKP in 2002 was the first real turning point. In con­trast to the regimes that went before it, the AKP government did not focus solely on military strategies to resolve the crisis, but instead also acknowledged the importance of social economic policies. However, despite improvements to the Kurd’s civil rights, a permanent solution is yet to come about and violence continues to flare up.

More recently, the war in Syria led to a further deterioration of the conflict. When the Syrian army abandoned the Kurdish areas in Syria (near Turkey’s south-east border), the conse­quent vacuum has been filled by the PKK, which has reportedly started to employ the area as a military base. This development is especially dangerous in light of the fact that after the last round of negotiations between the government and the PKK failed in 2011, violence once again flared up. It is hoped that renewed negotiations, which reportedly started at the beginning of 2013, will yield better results. However, despite these new negotia­tions, the Turkish military did not suspend its operations against the PKK. This alone could jeopardize any progress at the negotiation table. In addition, the negotiation are between the government and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. This means that the outcome of the negotiations depends in large part on the ability of Ocalan, to rally the PKK behind a peace accord. Given these obstacles we do not expect an agreement to come about in the short-term.

Zero problems with neighbours

In 2009, with the appointment of Ahmet Davutoglu as the new minister of foreign affairs, Turkey started to broaden its focus beyond traditional allies (mostly the EU and US) and increasingly positioned itself as a regional power. Davutoglu recognized that as the global balance of power is shifting towards the east, Turkey needed to strengthen its ties with its eastern neighbours. In order to do so, Davutoglu established a policy of ‘ zero pro­blems with neighbours’, while simulta­neously increasing Turkey’s involvement in both east and west. More than before, Turkey’s foreign policy became a function of economic goals.

As a result of this shift in focus, Turkey succeeded in strengthening relations with the US and NATO, while also partaking in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an institution representing countries with a Muslim majority. Turkey’s efforts to become more involved in the Middle East helped it gain significant reconstruction projects in, among others, Iraq, while trade between Turkey and the Middle East grew sharply as well. In addition, relations with Russia also intensified and Russia is now one of Turkey’s main trade partners. 

Unfortunately, despite these successes, Tur­key’s zero problems strategy has proven problematic in a region that is prone to conflict and instability. Since 2009, Turkey’s relations with Israel (a former ally) deteriorated, as Israel refused to accept blame for the shooting of Turkish civilians. Furthermore, after strengthening relations with Syria in 2009 and 2010, Turkey saw itself forced to condemn the violence perpetrated by Syria’s leader Assad. In addition, Erdogan repeatedly called on Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad to step down and continues to accommodate the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria. The crisis in Syria, as well as Turkey’s role in Iraq is also impacting its relations with Iran, as both countries often find each other at opposite sides. And, given either’s ambition to become a regional power, we deem it unlikely that relations will improve much in the near future. Meanwhile, Turkey’s conflict with Greece and Cyprus has not been resolved, and, after Greece rejected the Annan plan for re-unification of the island, hopes of resolving the conflict have waned.


The rise of the AKP has altered both domestic and foreign politics. Over the course of a decade, the AKP government managed to permanently curtail the influence of the military and made the Turkish political system more democratic than ever before. On the flip side, however, we cannot overlook the fact that these achievements went hand in hand with increased repression of media and critics of the AKP. In addition, although the position of the Kurdish minority improved under the AKP, the conflict between the PKK and the government remains unresolved and actually deteriorated in recent years. For the future, much depends on the AKP’s popularity. Indeed, we have little reason to believe that the AKP will become less repressive in the future, unless its power is balanced by a strong opposition party. Alternatively, if accession to the EU were to become a viable option, the government could be more inclined to improve the country’s civil rights situation. However, this is an unlikely scenario.

The rise of the AKP also changed Turkey’s foreign affairs. The military regime, wishing to implement a secular system, primarily looked to the EU and US. However, with the rise of the AKP, Turkey started to embrace its other, Islamic identity and started to intensify relations with the Middle East and North Africa. In the future, we expect Turkey to grow its importance as a regional power, by further improving diplomatic and trade relations with both east and west. Nonetheless, ongoing regional instability will continue to challenge Turkey’s ability to maintain its zero problems with neighbor’s policy. 

Anouk Ruhaak
Rabobank KEO

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