Political tensions erupted when a graft probe targeting Erdogan’s government became public. He responded with a purge of the police and the judiciary in early 2014, accusing opponents of an attempted coup and loyalty to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. 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 were assembled by montage. Turkey temporarily blocked access to Twitter and YouTube ahead of a regional election in March 2014, drawing criticism from the EU and the U.S. In December, journalists were detained, including the editor-in-chief of the country’s bestselling newspaper. Erdogan won the country’s first direct presidential election in August, cementing his position as the most dominant leader since Ataturk. While the job has been largely a ceremonial role, Erdogan vowed to increase control over the government, the military and courts. His ruling Justice and Development Party needs to expand its parliamentarian majority in the June 2015 general election to push through constitutional changes that would change Turkey’s parliamentary system to a presidential one and boost Erdogan’s powers.
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 negotiations started in 2005. 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, though attacks on Kurds in Syria’s civil war is stirring old conflicts that destabilized the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey for decades.
Opposition groups denounce Erdogan as an increasingly autocratic leader and say he’s taking steps to further 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 multiparty system in 1946. His 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 $66 billion into Turkish stocks and bonds since 2006. 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.