Turkey’s Continental Divide


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 many of Turkey’s current political dramas, including riots in 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 tightened his grip on power, polarizing the nation. That’s rattled investors, sending the currency to record lows. 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.

The Situation

Turkey is headed for a second election Nov. 1 after the ruling Justice and Development Party lost its parliamentary majority in a June vote and rejected the possibility of a coalition government that would restrain Erdogan’s power. A three-year truce with Kurdish rebels collapsed as he took aim at the pro-Kurdish political party that won its first seats. Government forces carried out airstrikes against Kurdish militants after a terrorist bombing in the capital, Ankara, and attacks on Turkish soldiers and police. The election derailed a plan to push through constitutional changes that would have enhanced Erdogan’s role and cemented control over the government, the military and the courts. Political tensions erupted in late 2013 when he responded to a graft probe by purging the police and the judiciary.  Opponents were accused of an attempted coup and loyalty to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric and government critic in self-imposed exile in the U.S. Regulators seized control of a bank linked to the imam in February and dozens of journalists have been detained. The government has widened oversight of the Internet and blocked access to Twitter and YouTube at times, drawing criticism from the EU and the U.S. The central bank has faced political pressure to cut interest rates to revive a stagnating economy, raising questions about its independence. The opposition is fractured, though rising unemployment has fed support.

Source: MetroPOLL Chairman Ozer Sencar
Source: MetroPOLL Chairman Ozer Sencar

The Background

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.” Erdogan isn’t shy about his ambitions: He has built a presidential palace four times the size of Versailles.

The Argument

Opposition groups denounce Erdogan as an increasingly autocratic leader. 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 many voters still admire Erdogan 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 $50 billion into Turkish stocks and bonds since 2006. The scandals have exacerbated the economic slowdown 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 Businessweek explained how the June vote 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 2012 Mideast Quarterly article, “Changes in Turkey, What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy?”
  • The report from a 2010 Oxford University conference, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy in a Changing World.”
  • 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 writers of this QuickTake:

Onur Ant in Ankara at oant@bloomberg.net

Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at lharrison@bloomberg.net