Transformation of Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is not only the most powerful statesman in 21st century Turkish politics, but arguably the most transformational leader of the Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1924 from the Anatolian carcass of the Ottoman sultanate. Erdogan’s greatest achievement is sheer survival since a short-lived predecessor Islamist civilian government was overthrown by the military high command in 1997.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Wed 19 May 2010, 9:48 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:27 AM

However, Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) has swept two national elections and commands a 325 seat majority in the Ankara parliament’s despite successive challenges to its power from the generals and the judiciary.

Erdogan engineered a constitutional revolution that incorporated minority rights for the ethnic Kurdish citizens, democratic freedoms to fast forward the Turkish accession path to the EU and subordinated the powerful generals, the self-styled guardians of Ataturk’s secular legacy, to the elected leadership.

I remember successive visits to Istanbul on the eve of AKP’s landslide win in the 2002 elections. Turkey was an economic basket case at the time. The Turkish lira had collapsed amid hyperinflation and the failure of dozens of private banks. Recession had taken its toll on a country that had endured a generation of weak coalition governments, political violence, an inflation death spiral, military coups, IMF shock therapy programmes and a bloody civil war against Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK Kurdish secessionists in eastern Anatolia that claimed 30,000 lives in the 1990’s.

Turkey had threatened to invade Syria to punish it for hosting Ocalan in Damascus and was on the brink of war with Greece over Cyprus, where a Turkish invasion had divided the island in 1974. The election of the untested, allegedly Islamist AKP seemed to me only to increase the risk of yet another military coup that would relegate the Turkish Republic to the minor leagues of a Third World failed state, albeit one under IMF and NATO diktat. Thankfully, Erdogan’s Turkey has emerged as anything but a failed state in the past eight years. The Anatolian tiger is now the Islamic world’s most vibrant democracy and an emerging economic powerhouse. Erdogan has resurrected Turkish influence in the Arab world on a scale not witnessed since the geopolitical death spasm of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.

Economic reform has underwritten Turkey’s spectacular return to grace on the international stage. Erdogan’s government slashed inflation into single digits for the first time in modern history, reengineered a historic currency reforms that saw the lira lose five zeros against the dollar, committed Ankara to EU mandated reform on subsidies and competition, and, above all, attracted $80 billion in FDI, more foreign investment than all his predecessors had managed since the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

While the Kemalist elites in the military, academia, big business and judiciary viewed the AKP with suspicion, and even contempt, as the political voice of orthodox Muslim traders and petty bureaucrats from the Anatolian heartland, Erdogan used his economic reforms and enthusiastic embrace of the EU as a hedge against another military coup d’état. It is a pity that visceral French and German opposition to Turkish membership in the EU (too populous, too poor, too Muslim) were the endgame of Erdogan’s policies. In fact, the flip side of the EU’s glacial response to Ankara’s application for membership has been the escalation in the Kemalist military high command’s penchant for political intervention, including successive judicial attempts to ban the AKP and even an abortive plot to seize power in a coup d’état.

The only reason that ambitious Bonapartist generals were not been able to dislodge Erdogan is that AKP commends an undisputed mandate to rule from the population and a grass roots national political vote bank. After yet another confrontation with the generals over their refusal to accept Abdullah Gul as the Turkish President, Erdogan called an early election in 2007 and won a landslide win on an epic 84 per cent turnout.

The 2007 election was a milestone event in Turkish politics, a de facto referendum on Erdogan’s transformational economic, political diplomatic and constitutional policies.

Erdogan has openly spoken out against Israeli atrocities in Gaza, refused to allow George W. Bush to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003, and sought rapprochement with Iran’s ruling Ayatollahs. Turkish “soft power”, symbolised by the soap opera Noor and the hordes of Arab tourists in the palaces and mosques of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district on the Bosphorus, has swept the Middle East. Erdogan has forged close ties with Syria and acted as a mediator with Israel for a settlement on the Golan Heights and established economic ties with both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional elite. This is a revolutionary policy U-turn since the Turkish generals had once threatened to invade both Syria and Iraq. Erdogan has sought historical reconciliation with the Kurds and the Armenians, transformed Istanbul as a hub for Caspian oil and Egyptian LNG, attracted multi-billion petrodollar investments from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Under Recep Erdogan, Turkey is no longer an impoverished EU supplicant, the Pentagon’s gendarme in the Mediterranean saddled with a cultural lobotomy where the state’s elite aggressively denies the population’s Muslim heritage under the prism of an anachronistic ideology. Turkey is the Islamic model of a successful, reformist, and democratic Muslim state — unique in the history of the Middle East.

Matein Khalid is an investment banker based in Dubai. For comments, write to

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